Finally, after six thrilling weeks of competition, the World Cup Final has arrived. England v South Africa. Contests between these two sides are always brutal and Saturday’s final will be no different. South Africa seemingly are going in with their full metal jacket approach. They will want to bash England into submission. England will also look to their physical prowess to take the battle to the Springboks.
The form book says that if England gets close to their performance against the All Blacks in the semi-finals, then there will only be one winner. Charlie Inglefield thinks there is more to it than that.
Rassie Erasmus and Eddie Jones
The first battle is between the two coaches Rassie Erasmus and Eddie Jones. Currently, it is 2-2. Erasmus at the beginning of his tenure won the first two games in a defining series for both sides in the summer of 2018.
On home soil, Erasmus picked the inspirational figure of Siya Kolisi to be his captain and blooded the likes of S’busiso Nkosi. In a thrilling series, the Springboks came back from first-half deficits to overrun England and take an unassailable 2-0 lead. Crucially for Eddie Jones and England, they dug deep in a rain-soaked Newlands to win the third test.
It might have saved Jones’ job, who knows? Tom Curry came of age that day and England started a much-needed rebuilding process that has led to the summit 18 months later.
The last match was another thunderous match at Twickenham in November 2018 which England won controversially as a last-minute shoulder from Owen Farrell was granted and thus prevented the Springboks from having a chance to kick at goal. Later hindsight from Angus Gardner the referee that day suggested that England had dodged a bullet.
During this World Cup Erasmus has given South Africa stability and a gameplan. It may not be pretty but it has been effective in nullifying the opposition which has come in their way. From the outside, the Springboks look unified and happy which has not always been the case.
The momentum England gained from a positive summer than included the pre-World Cup warm-ups was significant by the time they arrived into Japan. Eddie Jones’ knowledge of Japan has helped his squad immeasurably.
The pressure cooker environment that can build in a World Cup campaign (just think back to 2015) has been refreshingly absent. England’s players have worked bloody hard but have also had their downtime. They have looked sharp, decisive and fit as a result.
Erasmus and Jones both deserve a huge amount of credit in the way that they have pulled their respective teams together in the last 18 months. Contrasting styles but mightily effective.
Springbok Power – the Pro’s and Con’s for England
The Springboks have never tried to cover up their strength, which is their immense physicality. It is what defines them. Huge men who relish smashing into their opponents. When one looks at their team – Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen, Damian de Allende etc. they are alpha males who know only one way. When it works it is a formidable sight. Scrums go backwards at a rate of knots, equally big men get treated like rag dolls. It is rugby’s intimidation at it’s best. If it works?
This is the million-dollar question when one assesses who wins this World Cup. Unless Rassie Erasmus has created the biggest bluff in World Cup history and decides to run the ball from everywhere, it will be route-one stuff. If Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard are not inch-accurate with their kicking they will play into England’s hands. England has a better attack and they have pace to burn. If the kicks go too far, the Springbok forwards will have to do a lot of running. It will isolate their defenders and England should be able to create opportunities off the back of it.
de Klerk and Youngs the key men for their teams
The counter-argument obviously is that if de Klerk gives his forwards and his back three a chance to compete for the high ball then England could be in trouble. South Africa’s set-piece is impressive and once you think you have got rid of the starting front five on comes world-class operators like Vincent Koch and Malcolm Marx. It is relentless and brutal, mistakes and fatigue can come in and Pollard is not missing many at the moment.
So much talk this week has been about Faf de Klerk’s battle against Ben Youngs. de Klerk is the heartbeat of this Springbok team. A giant amongst beasts. Against Wales, he was everywhere. It was not just his kicking but his ability to be where the ball is. Yes, he makes mistakes but it does not bother him and that is a danger sign for this English team. Youngs was much more like his old self against the All Blacks. Aaron Smith is not dissimilar to de Klerk but Youngs dealt with him well because he had an armchair ride from his forwards.
If England’s pack go backwards then de Klerk will be all over Youngs. Crucially though Youngs has so much experience and his eye for the gap has got better as the tournament has gone on. If Youngs can get de Klerk guessing more in defence and if he continues to improve his box kicking then the Sale Shark’s influence on the game will dwindle. If’s and but’s and that is what might decide this final. These two scrum-halves hold the key to momentum and influence in this match.
Tight contest but England to win
Only one team has beaten the All Blacks in the knock-out stages and then gone on to win the trophy. Australia in 1991. However, one cannot look past how much England has improved as this tournament has gone on.
They have had to play physical with the likes of Argentina, they have had to play tactical against Australia and they had to be perfect to beat New Zealand. England has passed each one of these tests with aplomb. Therefore if there was a favourite for the final then it has to be England.
Finals are traditionally tight, attritional and nervous affairs. Saturday will most likely be the same. Which side keeps their discipline will be important as will which side gets into their rhythm the quickest. England look fit and relaxed and their defence has been outstanding.
The Springboks defence has also been excellent, partly because they have strangled their opponents into submission. Against England, South Africa will have to do more. They have Cheslin Kolbe back which is a big plus for them, but they need to utilise Kolbe for his running game and not having him chase kicks all day.
This is where the battle could be won – England has more x-factor than the Springboks. It may only come from one line break but I think that is more likely from England than South Africa.
Verdict: England 21 South Africa 15.
“Main photo credit”