Wales star George North fought back tears as he reflected on an international career that saw him “live a dream”.

The 31-year-old has announced that he will retire from Test rugby after Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Italy in Cardiff.

He made his Wales debut as a teenager in 2010, touching down twice against South Africa, and has scored 47 tries for his country – a figure bettered only by Shane Williams.

North is third on Wales’ all-time cap list with 120 Test appearances behind Alun Wyn Jones and Gethin Jenkins, while he played in four Rugby World Cups and helped Wales win four Six Nations titles – including two Grand Slams.

He also toured Australia with the 2013 British and Irish Lions, which included him scoring a brilliant solo try in the first Test and then famously picking up and carrying Wallabies wing Israel Folau during the second game, and New Zealand four years later.

“It has not been an easy decision for me at all,” an emotional North said at Wales’ training base in the Vale of Glamorgan, pausing to regather himself on several occasions during a 20-minute press conference.

“It is the best thing for me and my family and the sacrifice everyone has to make.

“I didn’t think this day would come – I wished this day would never come – but for me it is about being able to go out on my terms and being able to enjoy it like I have for every second of the last 14 years.

“I am going to use this week and Saturday to really take it all in and to live my dream again one more time.

“For me, it has always been about me being the best I can be for Wales and being the best I can be with the Three Feathers on my chest.

“I have loved every second of it and cherished every second of it – the highs and the lows. I couldn’t have written it better myself, to be honest.

“I have been very fortunate to live a dream not many people get to do.”

North, who played the majority of his time with Wales as a wing before moving to centre and will join French club Provence next season, addressed his national squad colleagues on Wednesday.

And he underlined how he wants it to be business as usual when Wales strive for a first victory of this season’s Six Nations against Italy.

“I said (to the squad), let’s not get weird. This week is the same and the preparation is the same,” he added.

“I asked them for nothing to change from what we always do. For us, it is a must-win game and the focus should never be on one individual.”

North is the latest big-name Wales player to step down from the Test arena during a 10-month period that has also seen Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny call time.

“I was speaking to Becky (North’s wife, who is a double Olympic medallist), and when she stepped away from cycling. The conversation we have had plenty of times is, ‘when you know, you know’,” he said.

“Sometimes that is not the right answer and the answer is a fairy-tale answer or the fairy-tale finish. For me it has been a dream, and in my heart I know it is the right time for me to step away.

“I think my first cap is something that will always burn strong with me. It will put a smile on my face. At the time I said I had a list of goals at the back of my bedroom door, and I knocked out probably 95 per cent in one game!

“To me that really gave me the snapshot and the window to really push on to give me the fuel and desire to do what I’ve done for so long.

“You work until you are content, and that is when you can walk away with a smile on your face.

“I hope people will think of me as a Test animal, someone who would never give in, would give everything and left nothing out there.

“I have had my journey and I’ve loved it, and now it is time for those boys to have theirs and to love it as much as I have.”

North, who was omitted from the Wales starting line-up beaten 45-24 by France last weekend, replaces Joe Roberts against Italy on what his now his Wales farewell, with fellow centre Nick Tompkins returning instead of Owen Watkin.

Two other changes are in the pack, where Harlequins prop Dillon Lewis is preferred to Keiron Assiratti and Cardiff flanker Alex Mann packs down alongside back-row colleagues Tommy Reffell and Aaron Wainwright.

World Rugby has revealed legal action is being taken after match officials and players suffered online abuse during the 2023 World Cup.

One individual in Australia has been charged for online abuse, cases in other jurisdictions are pending – including France, New Zealand the UK – and 1,600 social media accounts have been reported to platforms for breach of their community guidelines.

England’s Wayne Barnes announced his retirement five days after refereeing the Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand, with his wife Polly revealing that he had received death threats while at the tournament in France and had suffered such abuse many times.

Referee Tom Foley announced in December he would take a break from international rugby because of the “torrent of criticism and abuse” he received after the final, where he was the television match official.

World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said: “The rise of online hate in society and sport is worrying and totally unacceptable and we will continue to do everything possible to protect and support our international match officials and their families by bringing abusers to justice.

“As a result of our partnership with Signify Group we have been able to unmask and identify abusers and take action through law enforcement agencies in multiple countries.

“We hope that prosecutions will send a clear message that such behaviour is not tolerated and even if a person hides behind an alias on a social media network, they will be identified and can be charged.

“It is important to note that this programme is not about suppressing debate, legitimate criticism or free speech, it is about maintaining respect, compassion and decent human and rugby values.

“We will use the recommendations of the report to better understand online trends and help address the areas that lead to abuse at source. Some of these aspects will play into our Shape of the Game conversations in February.”

More than 900 social media accounts, including those belonging to all match officials with public-facing social accounts, were monitored by Signify Group during the seven weeks of the World Cup last September and October.

The accounts monitored also included the families of match officials and World Rugby’s bona fide channels.

The impact of the work comes on the eve of ‘Whistleblowers’, an access-all-areas film following the match officials’ journey to and through the 2023 tournament, which also highlights the scale of online abuse they faced, being broadcast.

World Rugby said that in the case of more extreme abusive accounts flagged to platforms, takedown rates are running at approximately 90 per cent.

Barnes said: “Those who abuse or threaten players, match officials or their families must realise there will be consequences for their actions.

“It is great to see World Rugby leading the way and seeing the first charges being made against those individuals who send such appalling messages.

“There is simply no place for that behaviour in rugby, in sport or in society.”

Match officials, including TMOs, received 49 per cent of the total abuse during the tournament.

Three match officials were in the top 10 most targeted individuals and Barnes was the most targeted person, receiving one third of all abuse.

The England team received the largest volume of abuse, followed by South Africa and France.

England’s World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson announced his retirement from international rugby as a player on this day in 2004.

Johnson, who led England to their World Cup triumph in Australia the previous November, was 33 when he called time on an illustrious 10-year Test career.

He confirmed his widely-anticipated decision by releasing a statement during Leicester’s Heineken Cup win against Ulster at Welford Road on January 17, 2004.

Johnson said: “This has not been an easy decision to make. After talking to my family and friends – and after a lot of thought – I have decided to retire from international rugby with immediate effect.

“It has been a privilege to play for England, alongside some great players and with a great coaching staff.

“It has, of course, been a massive honour for me to captain my country.”

Johnson won 84 caps and led his country 39 times, including the thrilling extra-time World Cup final victory over Australia in Sydney and a Six Nations Championship Grand Slam the same year.

He was also the captain on two Lions tours, inspiring a 1997 Test series triumph in South Africa and being at the helm in Australia four years later.

On the domestic front, he skippered Leicester to 2001 and 2002 Heineken Cup triumphs and oversaw four Premiership title wins in as many seasons.

Fittingly, his final England appearance was the World Cup final when host nation and holders Australia were defeated in one of rugby union’s classic matches.

Under Leicester’s talisman second-row forward, England produced some unforgettable moments.

They beat Australia twice Down Under in the same year and defeated New Zealand away for the first time in 30 years before landing rugby union’s ultimate prize.

In the summer of 2008, Johnson was unveiled as England head coach.

During his tenure, the Red Rose won the 2011 Six Nations Championship, their first triumph since Johnson captained them to glory eight years earlier.

Johnson left his post later that year following England’s World Cup quarter-final exit to France in Auckland and has since worked as a television pundit.

The British and Irish Lions will send a women’s team to New Zealand for a historic three-Test series in September 2027.

The inaugural women’s Lions tour will feature three clashes against the current world champions.

A Lions statement on Tuesday morning confirmed the tour will not overlap with that year’s men’s World Cup and will include warm-up fixtures, but said the full schedule had not yet been finalised.

British and Irish Lions chief executive Ben Calveley said: “Playing three Test matches against the current world champions, the Black Ferns in New Zealand, in front of thousands of fans represents the ultimate challenge and makes for a fantastic sporting spectacle.

“We look forward to working with all our stakeholders including New Zealand Rugby to finalise an exciting inaugural tour.”

Former Wales assistant coach Rob Howley was banned from all rugby activities for breaching World Rugby’s anti-corruption and betting regulations, on this day in 2019.

Howley was banned for 18 months, with nine months suspended, after it emerged he had placed bets on matches involving Wales and two of their players.

It was found that, over a four-year period from November 2015 to September 2019, Howley placed 363 bets involving 1,163 rugby matches with three bookmakers through accounts held under his own name.

Of the bets, 24 involved Wales or were related to “connected events”, such as Six Nations games involving rival teams. On two occasions he bet on unnamed Wales players scoring tries.

Howley was sent home from Japan shortly before the 2019 World Cup began after the WRU became aware of possible wrongdoing.

The alarm was first raised when WRU policy and integrity manager Jeremy Rogers was contacted by an employee of Betway, who claimed that Howley had placed bets on Wales games.

It emerged that Howley gambled on a Wales player to be the first try-scorer in the 25-7 Six Nations victory over Ireland in March, but he stated that it was part of a treble that fell in line with his normal recreational betting activity. He also backed another player to score a try.

When the unnamed players were interviewed they denied any knowledge that the bets had been placed on them, with Howley supporting their testimony.

The WRU found that Howley made an overall loss of £4,000 during the time period under scrutiny and described his activity as a “hobby”, while adding that “we use the word hobby with some caution because it seems that a trigger for Mr Howley’s betting activity was a family tragedy involving the death of his sister”.

Howley returned to coaching with Canada after serving his ban and, in December, was appointed as technical coach with Wales ahead of the 2024 Six Nations.

Former England captain Sarah Hunter admits it is a dream to know the North East will host the opening fixture of the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

It was confirmed on Monday by World Rugby and Rugby Football Union that the Red Roses will kick off the tournament at Sunderland’s 48,707-seater Stadium of Light on August 22, with the final set to take place at Twickenham on September 27.

Hunter, who was born in North Shields, bowed out from the international game in March after playing her 141st Test against Scotland at Newcastle’s Kingston Park and is excited about a new generation being inspired by this fixture.

“When I knew the North East was getting a game, I was so excited and when I heard it was the opening game with the Red Roses, honestly it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Hunter said.

“I am so proud to be from the North East and I know how much sport means to people here.

“The game is massive here and I think because we’re so far away, we sometimes get forgotten about, but to rubber-stamp it by hosting that first game here, we can show everyone how great the people are and what a great host city it can be.

“To know it could spark someone to either start rugby or want to continue it and hopefully in three or four World Cups’ time there can be players in the Red Roses team who were here because that is what they needed to generate that excitement and inspiration to want to play rugby.”

Hunter was a key figure the last time England hosted the World Cup in 2010, but the majority of fixtures for that tournament were played at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford.

After leading her country to the World Cup final against hosts and eventual winners New Zealand last year, the current England transitional coach is proud of the game’s continued growth.

She added: “I’ve been a couple of times to the Stadium of Light but I’m not going to lie, I’ve been to St James’ Park a few more times! But it’s an incredible stadium.

“My first (Test) cap at Old Albanian Rugby Club was in front of 200 people, the first World Cup I played was a home World Cup and we played our Pool games at Surrey Sports Park, which at the time was the right venue.

“So, to come to the Stadium of Light for the opening game and to have the atmosphere that will be generated, to be playing in stadiums of this calibre has been the dream.

“I am so excited and in some respects, I wish I was a little bit younger so I could have another crack at a home World Cup!


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“Now going back into the team on a coaching capacity, you want to be performing in your home World Cup.

“Having played in the last two and fallen short in the final, we will definitely set our eyes on winning this home World Cup.”

Owen Farrell has returned from the World Cup with the hunger to prolong his career for as long as possible.

Farrell led England to a third-place finish in France following an agonising semi-final defeat by South Africa but, unlike a number of his international peer group, the 32-year-old has no intention of looking towards the finishing line.

Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Jonny May played their final Tests at the World Cup, while Dan Cole, Joe Marler, Danny Care and Manu Tuilagi are also close to signing off at the highest level.

But Farrell has raised the possibility that he could still be present for Australia 2027 as England enter a period of rebuilding.

“I love what I do, I’m passionate about it and I don’t see that slowing down any time soon,” the Saracens captain said at the season launch of the Investec Champions Cup at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“I’m unbelievably lucky to do something that I’m really passionate about and I want to play as long as it can if I’m still excited about what I am doing.

“The two go hand in hand because if you’re not excited then you won’t do what you want to do anyway, you won’t play for the teams that you want to play for and you won’t play to the standard that you want to.

“I wouldn’t sit down and set targets. But I also wouldn’t say they are not in the back of my head, quietly.

“I wouldn’t be one to say ‘I have written this down, this down and this down, this is what I want to achieve and this is what I am working for every day’. But they are there in the background.

“The exciting bit is what’s in front of us. Where you can take what you’ve been doing and how to get the best out of yourself. Hopefully there’s loads more of that.”

Farrell’s immediate aim is to help Saracens challenge for silverware on two fronts with the Gallagher Premiership already under way and their Champions Cup opening against the Bulls on December 9.

Saracens have won three European titles, their most recent coming in 2019, and the competition retains a special place in Farrell’s heart.

“When I was still at school and watching the rugby I couldn’t wait for the then Heineken Cup, now the Champions Cup,” the fly-half said.

“You’d sit there on a Friday night, then all day Saturday, all day Sunday, sometimes you didn’t move because there was just big game after big game.

“There is something about European games that make them bigger. These are games that teams look forward to and therefore end up putting their best out there on the field.

“There are a lot more big games, they sell out and the atmosphere changes a bit. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there are some European nights you’ve played in that are memorable.”

South Africa hooker Bongi Mbonambi has accused England of being “unprofessional” over allegations that he racially abused Tom Curry during last month’s Rugby World Cup semi-final.

World Rugby found “insufficient evidence” to back up Curry’s claim that he was called a “white c***” by the Springboks player midway through the first half of the match in Paris.

Mbonambi said the “misunderstanding” arose because Curry failed to realise he was speaking Afrikaans, a common practice among the Springboks to ensure opponents do not understand their messages.

He told BBC Sport Africa: “I think it is a very sad thing when you live in a first world country (England), you think the rest of the world speaks English.

“It was unprofessional on their part. They could have gone on a website and looked for an English dictionary and looked for the word in Afrikaans.

“People understood (in South Africa), but obviously their side was misunderstood.”

World Rugby stressed that Curry made the allegation in good faith and added there was no suggestion that it was “deliberately false or malicious”.

Both players have been subjected to online abuse since the alleged incident, with Curry’s club, Sale Sharks, saying they were “disgusted” by some of the criticism aimed at Curry.

Leigh Halfpenny expects a “pretty special” Wales send-off on Saturday while hoping to continue playing for another two seasons.

Halfpenny announced his decision to retire from international duty following Wales’ exit from the recent Rugby World Cup and will make his final appearance in the red jersey against the Barbarians in Cardiff.

But the 34-year-old is set to prolong his career, with Japan considered to be the most likely destination ahead of an official announcement next week.

“It’s all done,” Halfpenny said ahead of his Millennium Stadium farewell.

“I’ve got a contract for another season and then we’ll see what happens after that. I’m looking for that to be announced next week.”

Halfpenny won 101 caps for Wales – the Barbarians game, which is being staged to pay tribute to the country’s record cap holder Alun Wyn Jones, is uncapped – and scored 801 points after making his debut at the age of 19 against South Africa in November 2008.

He made four Test appearances for the Lions across the 2013 and 2017 tours, although he was also selected in 2009 before injury cut short his involvement.

Halfpenny was named player of the series in 2013, helping the Lions to a 2-1 series victory in Australia.

He said: “I’m just grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to wear the jersey over the last 15 years.

“It’s been an absolute privilege to put on the Welsh shirt and I’m really excited for Saturday.

“I’ve got a few friends and family coming along, and I’m looking forward to going out one last time.

“To run out alongside guys like Alun and Justin Tipuric, albeit they’ll be on the opposite side, and share the field with those two greats of the game and Welsh legends again will be pretty special.”

Halfpenny is third on the all-time list of men’s points scorers for Wales, behind Neil Jenkins (1,049) and Stephen Jones (917).

He says he grew up in the Swansea suburb of Gorseinon determined to emulate outside-half Jenkins, hero of the Lions’ 1997 series victory in South Africa.

Halfpenny said: “Jenks was an idol for me, watching him play and kick for Wales. He made me want to be like him kicking for Wales.

“I just went down the field and put the practice in. That was my dream, to play and kick for Wales.

“I’ve got to be honest, I was pretty star-struck when I met up with him at St Helen’s (the home ground of Swansea RFC) at the age of 16, and he’s been incredible for me.

“I’ve learned so much from him; not just goal-kicking but the work you need to put in. He’s supported me throughout and been huge in what I’ve been able to achieve.”

Halfpenny also wants to follow Jenkins into coaching, adding: “It’s something that I would like to do once I hang up the boots.

“I will be having a chat with him and picking up any tips I can. He’s one of the best in the world and to learn from him has been pretty special.”

World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry stepped down from his role in charge of New Zealand on this day in 2011.

The announcement came eight days after the All Blacks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil following a narrow 8-7 win over France at Eden Park in Auckland.

The then 65-year-old finished with a record of 88 wins in 103 Tests, having been appointed to the position in December 2003.

“It’s been an enormous privilege to coach the All Blacks and I am exceptionally proud of how the team has added to the All Blacks legacy over the last eight years, involving 103 Test matches,” he said.

“I am also exceptionally proud of how they have developed an extremely professional and enjoyable culture and environment, and how they have reached out to people of all ages and put a smile on their faces, both here in New Zealand and overseas.”

Christchurch-born Henry was replaced by his assistant Steve Hansen, who helped New Zealand retain the World Cup in 2015 – the country’s third title.

He previously served as Wales coach, between 1998 and 2002, and also led the British and Irish Lions’ losing tour to Australia in 2001.

New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) chief executive Steve Tew said: “He leaves the All Blacks job as one of the greatest coaches in the game. His record is unsurpassed.”

Henry, whose first World Cup campaign ended with a quarter-final defeat to France in 2007, agreed a part-time role with the NZRU to mentor the nation’s up-and-coming coaches.

He then took up a similar position with the Argentina Rugby Union, while also working as an assistant coach for Los Pumas.

Eddie Jones said he wanted to continue as head coach of Australia and has not had a job offer from Japan after his resignation was confirmed.

Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh said they had reached a “sensible” agreement with the former England coach as his nine months in the job came to an end.

Speaking to Channel 9 in Australia, Jones said he “never” had a job offer from Japan and criticised media reports of an interview ahead of a World Cup campaign which saw Australia crash out in the group stages.

“I’ve got no job to go to, no job offer,” he said. “My commitment to Australian rugby has been 100%. I did want to go on. Coaching a team is a bit like being in a marriage, you need commitment from both sides.

“I was committed to change the team. Rugby Australia at the moment cannot activate the changes, financial and political, to make real change in Australian rugby.”

He continued: “I don’t like to be in projects where I don’t think they can really get to where they need to get to and I’ve made that decision.

“Rugby Australia probably doesn’t think that and that’s where the unity of our project is not in the place it needs to be.

“Sometimes you go in the bank and blow it up but you don’t come out with the money.”

Former Wallabies flanker Waugh said he “took Eddie on his word” when he denied reports linking him with Japan.

Talking to a press conference in Sydney, Waugh said: “Our focus will be reconnecting with the Australian public rather than where Eddie’s going to be.

“We’ve come to a sensible conclusion, both for Eddie and for Rugby Australia.

“I don’t think it changes the position we’re at now, whether Eddie was to stay or go.

“This is hopefully a low point and a chance to reset. The most important thing is to unite.”

Jones will officially leave his role on November 25 and Waugh said Rugby Australia would take “however long it takes” to ensure they got the “best possible coach”.

He refused to be drawn on the position of chairman Hamish McLennan, who has faced criticism for replacing Dave Rennie with Jones on a five-year deal in January – weeks after he had been dismissed by England.

“Ultimately the board is responsible for this decision,” he said. “It’s speculation where we would have been if we had not made that call and Dave had stayed on.

“The results were not up to expectation. The board has made some bold calls. Hindsight is a wonderful thing… where we ended up was not good enough.”

Rugby Australia earlier confirmed Jones’ resignation as head coach following the Wallabies’ failure to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time.

“Rugby Australia can confirm that it has accepted the resignation of Wallabies head coach Eddie Jones, and he will depart the position on 25 November 2023,” a statement from the governing body read.

“Rugby Australia thanks Eddie for his commitment to the Wallabies in 2023, and wishes him the best in his future endeavours.

“Announcements regarding the future of the Wallabies coaching staff will be made in due course.”

McLennan had already vowed to continue in his role, telling the Sydney Morning Herald in a statement: “I came to rugby to find a way to fix it when it all fell over and despite the sad Eddie situation, this is another hurdle we’ll overcome.

“I want to stay to deliver the 2027 World Cup in Australia. That has always been the big prize for Australian rugby.

“More destabilisation will just make matters worse, just when we’re about to break through. Life is not a continuous line of perfect calls and success.”

Jones won just two of nine Tests in charge against Georgia and Portugal in the World Cup where they suffered losses to Fiji and Wales.

The chairman of Rugby Australia has said he will not quit following the resignation of coach Eddie Jones.

Rugby Australia has yet to officially announce Jones’ departure in the wake of the Wallabies’ failure to reach the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup, but Hamish McLennan vowed to continue in his role as he described the “sad Eddie situation” as a “hurdle we’ll overcome”.

The former England coach’s departure just nine months into a five-year contract has been widely reported in Australia amid further speculation he is heading for a second spell in charge of Japan.

McLennan told the Sydney Morning Herald in a statement: “I came to rugby to find a way to fix it when it all fell over and despite the sad Eddie situation, this is another hurdle we’ll overcome.

“I want to stay to deliver the 2027 World Cup in Australia. That has always been the big prize for Australian rugby.

“More destabilisation will just make matters worse, just when we’re about to break through. Life is not a continuous line of perfect calls and success.”

McLennan played a key role in bringing Jones back for a second stint in charge of Australia, the 63-year-old replacing Dave Rennie just a month after being sacked by England following five wins in 12 Tests in 2022.

But his return turned sour with just two wins in nine Tests – against Georgia and Portugal in the World Cup where they suffered losses to Fiji and Wales.

The failure to get out of the group stages for the first time came against a background of Jones denying he took part in an interview with the Japanese Rugby Football Union, both during and after the World Cup.

Despite multiple news outlets reporting that he was poised to meet officials in Japan next month for a second interview, Jones has repeatedly told the media that he was committed to Australian rugby.

Jones told the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday: “(I) gave it a run. Hopefully be the catalyst for change.

“Sometimes you have to eat s**t for others to eat caviar further down the track.”

Ben Youngs enters Test retirement comforted by the belief that England’s future is in safe hands after an encouraging World Cup.

Youngs made his 127th and last appearance in Friday’s bronze final victory over Argentina and ends his 13-year international career as the nation’s most capped men’s player.

Courtney Lawes has also confirmed he is bowing out of the Test arena and Jonny May is very likely to follow suit, while Dan Cole and Joe Marler are nearing the end of their time at the top.

The departure of so many experienced stars – three of them cap centurions – points to an uncertain future, but Youngs believes England can leave the World Cup with confidence.

“There will still be a lot of guys playing who have vast experience and who will be playing with the guys that will now start learning Test rugby,” the Leicester scrum-half said.

“We have some really good leaders, some guys who have been there and done it and dragged the others along with us, along with coaches who gave us a really clear plan.

“It was a plan that suited the team and what we needed right now, which was stripping it back a little bit.

“Marcus Smith is not inexperienced because he’s got a huge amount of experience for someone of such a young age and he’s now finding playing full-back a little bit different for him.

“You’ve got Freddie Steward, Ollie Chessum, George Martin, you’ve got a lot of guys who are going to continue to grow.

“You then marry that up with the guys like Maro Itoje, Ellis Genge and Jamie George who will still be there.

“It’s about getting that blend and continuity in the group, and also we’ve got good coaches.

“And there is that Englishness in us when our backs are against the wall. It’s a bit of bloody-mindedness – ‘right boys, we’ve got no option, we’ve got to roll our sleeves up’.”

South Africa retained the men’s Rugby World Cup on Saturday evening with a nail-biting 12-11 victory over New Zealand at Stade de France.

Here, the PA news agency picks a team from the best performing players in the tournament.



15. Beauden Barrett (New Zealand): Two-time world player of the year set the standard for a playmaking full-back.

14. Damian Penaud (France): Daredevil wing who topped the try-scoring chart until Will Jordan ran amok against Argentina.

13. Waisea Nayacalevu (Fiji): The Islanders’ skipper stood out in a backline full of lethal runners.

12. Bundee Aki (Ireland): A player of the tournament candidate through his powerful running, clever lines and slick footwork.

11. Will Jordan (New Zealand): Ruthless finisher who is in the company of greats such as Jonah Lomu after amassing eight tries.

10. Richie Mo’unga (New Zealand): The game’s most complete fly-half with the creativity to match his game-management.

9. Aaron Smith (New Zealand): One of the World Cup’s smallest players is also among its smartest.

1. Ox Nche (South Africa): The Springboks’ strongest scrummager may be on the bench but what an impact he makes.

2. Mike Tadjer (Portugal): A front row all-rounder who was especially influential in the shock victory over Fiji.

3. Ben Tameifuna (Tonga): Monster tighthead prop weighing in at 23st 11lbs yet has the carrying prowess to match his scrummaging.

4. Eben Etzebeth (South Africa): A snarling enforcer and still the game’s dominant second row despite an off-night against England.

5. Tadhg Beirne (Ireland): Ever-present for Ireland who provided fight whether playing at lock or in the second-row.

6. Courtney Lawes (England): A back-row warrior with a sharp rugby brain excelled in the biggest games.

7. Jac Morgan (Wales): Blockbusting flanker who showed maturity beyond his years to lead Wales into the quarter-finals.

8. Ardie Savea (New Zealand): Pushed very close by England’s Ben Earl but Savea is a class apart.

South Africa’s victory over New Zealand in the World Cup final was forged in their national psyche, according to some of the stars of their successful title defence.

Hosts France, England and the All Blacks each fell by a single point to a Springboks side who do not know when they are beaten, establishing them as rugby’s ultimate knockout specialists.

New Zealand overcame the red card shown to their captain Sam Cane for a dangerous tackle to take an enthralling final to the wire and even had opportunities to snatch South Africa’s crown.

But the repeat champions – now the most successful nation in men’s World Cup history with four titles – defended magnificently to ensure they they will return home on Tuesday as heroes.

Prop Ox Nche, the destroyer of England’s scrum in the semi-final, said: “It shows our resilience. In South Africa that’s what we are made of.

“When you think we are down that’s when we come out and shock you and show you that we can achieve anything.

“I don’t know how to describe this feeling – it is a feeling that is out of this world. If we stay united we can achieve anything. That’s what it means to me.”

Victory was made possible by four first-half Handre Pollard penalties that saw the fly-half – who was only an injury call up to the squad in mid-September – finish the World Cup with a 100 per cent kicking record.


“This team has a never-say-die attitude. The second half was more containment and limiting the damage. Even though they scored, we limited them to five points,” Pollard said.

It can now be argued that a South Africa team that has amassed back-to-back world titles and defeated the Lions in 2021 is the greatest of all time and there is no question they lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy the hard way.

Full-back Damian Willemse is delighted to have triumphed on behalf of a nation that is besieged by problems.

“We do it for the people of South Africa. We do it for each other. We do it for our families. People don’t really have the money but they have made their way here to support us,” Willemse said.

“I’m really proud of everyone for putting their bodies on the line and sacrificing themselves.

“That is what we have to do to win a World Cup. It is really special to be part of it. I am just really proud to be South African.

“We knew it was going to take a massive effort to beat the All Blacks. They are a great team who have been in great form these past few weeks.

“The red card did change the game from a technical point of view, but we knew the All Blacks weren’t going to die.”

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