Rugby World Cup final week: In conversation with former All Black Sean Fitzpatrick
England vs South Africa in 2019's Rugby World Cup final takes place on Saturday in Yokohama (9am kick off)
By Michael Cantillon in Tokyo
Last Updated: 31/10/19 6:03am
Rugby World Cup winner and two-time finalist Sean Fitzpatrick talks exclusively to Sky Sports in Japan, illuminating what this particular week in the sporting calendar is like from a player's perspective…
In the history of rugby union, only seven different men have captained their countries to Rugby World Cup glory.
David Kirk, Nick Farr-Jones, Francois Pienaar, John Eales, Martin Johnson, John Smit and Richie McCaw (twice) part of the most exclusive and prodigious of clubs.
Indeed, only 15 individuals have ever led their nation out at a World Cup final at all.
In the latter category is former New Zealand hooker Sean Fitzpatrick.
Rugby World Cup final week is like no other for a player, and it's something Fitzpatrick experienced twice in his career.
A World Cup winner with the All Blacks in 1987, Fitzpatrick was captained by Kirk on that occasion, before leading his nation out at Ellis Park in Johannesburg eight years later as skipper himself in the 1995 World Cup final.
In 1987 there was joy at the end of it at Auckland's Eden Park for a just-turned 24-year-old, while in 1995 despair in South Africa as the Springboks reached rugby's zenith amid unforgettable scenes between the late Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar in the wake of negotiations to end apartheid.
"You've earned the right to play in the final, so you try and enjoy it but with that comes a lot of pressure - an enormous amount of pressure," Fitzpatrick tells Sky Sports in Tokyo.
"But you've earned the right to contest for the greatest honour and you're desperate to go the whole way.
"You have to try and enjoy it, it's a rare feat, and that's what I would be saying to the sides involved."
Between 1986 and 1997, Fitzpatrick collected 92 caps for the All Blacks perched in the middle of the front row.
The now 56-year-old featured in three World Cups during his career, reaching finals in 1987 and 1995 as previously mentioned, as well as suffering semi-final elimination at Lansdowne Road in Dublin against eventual champions Australia in 1991.
A palpable sense of disappointment and pain remains with Fitzpatrick for those days more than two decades ago. A feeling of hurt he concedes the current All Blacks side will be going through presently after last week's 19-7 semi-final defeat to Eddie Jones' England.
As somebody hugely versed in the emotions the most significant of rugby days bring, Fitzpatrick is near uniquely placed to question on the feelings players from England and South Africa will be going through in Tokyo and Yokohama this week.
Neither nation has been at a World Cup final since 2007 - when they met each other in Paris - and only one of the 62 players within either 31-man squad, Frans Steyn, has experienced a World Cup final before.
"The way you're doing it today is potentially not good enough to win tomorrow. You always have to try and keep ahead of the opposition," Fitzpatrick says.
"The pressure is incredibly intense but you would rather be there in the final than on a plane home on the Friday night, that's for sure.
"I've done both, and I tell what: playing the final is much more fun.
"Nothing really changes apart from the feeling inside you.
"You have to prepare accordingly, do your analysis work - and most of that is already done by that point anyway by other guys.
"You don't really do anything different. You just have to grasp the opportunity on the day. A special opportunity."
One of Owen Farrell and Siya Kolisi will join the select list of World Cup-winning captains at Stadium Yokohama on Saturday, looking to etch their name alongside compatriots Johnson and Pienaar - Farrell seeking to become the first back to lift the trophy for 28 years.
The William Webb Ellis Cup will be raised in front of an Asian audience for the very first time, as Japan shuts its doors on a quite unique tournament.
Having arrived to the Far East on the Tuesday before the quarter-finals, Fitzpatrick will have been in Japan almost three weeks by the time the final arrives.
It's a World Cup which has eclipsed all others in the All Black's view.
"It has been absolutely brilliant and they couldn't have done it better I don't think," he said.
"It's the first tournament in Asia, and the hospitality, respect, organisation of the Japanese has been better than any other World Cup I've ever seen."
The end is within sight, and success or failure is now in the laps of England and South Africa's respective squads. A week like no other, they are on the precipice of rugby's Everest.