It’s hard to believe that two years ago South Africa walked off the sodden turf at the North Harbour Stadium after crashing to a humiliating 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks.
At that point, the Springboks were devoid of confidence, lacked commitment on the pitch and countless issues were bubbling behind the scenes.
The tabloids around a country of 57 million people called for Allister Coetzee’s sacking and a change at union level.
Even when talk turned to the World Cup back in 2017, it would have been difficult to see the Springboks pass the quarter-final stage because of their inconsistencies and failure to live with elite opposition.
But sport brings up all sorts of surprises and the turnaround since Rassie Erasmus took over as head coach in March 2018 has been immense.
The Eastern Cape man has transformed a struggling team and sold a game plan to his players that has been the catalyst for their success.
He has managed to build depth in most positions and capture the imagination of the South African rugby public again.
Being physical and confrontational is what the Boks do best, with set-piece superiority, territorial dominance and an accurate kicking game proving hugely effective.
Fast forward two years and the Boks have clinched their third Webb Ellis trophy in remarkable fashion.
It was a totally deserving 32-12 victory against an England side who most people tipped as firm favourites leading into Saturday’s final, especially after their stunning semi-final triumph over the All Blacks.
As glamorous as it is to watch fast, attacking rugby, it is defence that ultimately wins matches and had been key to their wins over Japan and Wales in the knockout stages.
South Africa executed the perfect game plan in Yokohama – showing ferocious commitment in every tackle, precision with ball in hand and dominating set-piece and territory.
Defensively, they missed only 14 of their 168 tackles against England, and enjoyed 100 per cent success rate at both lineout and scrum time.
In truth, whether the Boks’ style of play is hard on the eye or not, if you concede six penalties at the scrum like England did, you’re always going to come out second best.
The Red Rose will be bitterly disappointed to lose by 20 points, but they couldn’t fire a shot or get quality first-phase ball.
Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and Handre Pollard will milk the limelight for their contributions on the scoreboard, but giants like Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph Du Toit and man of the match Duane Vermeulen also produced the magic in Yokohama.
Du Toit, who racked up 11 tackles and excelled in every area of the pitch, is likely to pick up the World Rugby Player of the Year award when it is announced on Sunday.
A lynchpin in the Boks pack, his workrate and versatility makes him one of first names on Erasmus’ teamsheet.
But one individual doesn’t make a team, and he’s backed by a squad of heroes.
That emotional image of Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s first black captain, lifting the Webb Ellis trophy after the game won’t be lost on anyone.
To think that when the Boks last won rugby’s global showpiece in 2007, his family – from a poor township in Port Elizabeth – did not even own a television and he was forced to watch the game in a bar.
His story, and that of team-mate Mapimpi, who used to walk 10 kilometres to school every day, are just some of the sub-plots that add to the emotion of this outstanding victory.
Success in Japan will unite an entire nation and hopefully inspire many young players around the country to take up or continue playing the game.
It’s important players growing up around the world dream big, stay involved in sport and have role models to inspire them along their personal journeys.
Kolisi should be a role model for young stars from South Africa and beyond. The way he carries himself on and off the pitch is incredible and he hugely deserves to be a central figure in his nation’s sporting history.
What Erasmus and his right hand man Jacques Nienaber have done to turn around the fortunes of the national team is extraordinary, and should pave the way for further development and improvements at national level.
It might not be the style of rugby that fans like to see, but the Boks’ physicality, solid set-piece and staunch defence has justifiably elevated them back to the pinnacle of world rugby again.
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