RWC 2019: South Africa's remarkable transformation and England's missed opportunity

Matt Jones - Editor 18:17 02/11/2019
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South Africa moved level with New Zealand on three Rugby World Cup trophies with a commanding 32-12 triumph over favourites England in the final in Yokohama.

The underdog Springboks were expected to struggle against the Red Rose, particularly after the way Eddie Jones’ men had ripped apart the All Blacks in last week’s semi-final.

But they bullied them at the lineout and in the scrum and forced error after error from England, who were second best throughout.

It was a tactical kicking game in the first half played between Handre Pollard and Owen Farrell, but the Boks blitzed the 2003 champions in the second half with Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe tries eventually securing a substantial and deserved win.

LEGACY HAS FINALLY BEEN ESTABLISHED

Nothing was supposed to eclipse South Africa winning their first World Cup. On home soil, a year after apartheid ended and three years after they were welcomed back into the rugby fraternity having being barred from the first two World Cups.

Francois Pienaar being handed the Webb Ellis Cup by president Nelson Mandela is one of sport’s most iconic and lasting images. As much a symbol of healing and togetherness as it was of victory.

But as the cameras disappeared and the trophy collected dust, it seemed it was job done. A pat on the back. Victory suggested, with apartheid over and a trophy hoisted, little more needed doing.

They failed to build on the fantastic momentum created. Chester Williams was the only black player in that vibrant Springbok starting XV that shackled the juggernaut Jonah Lomu and beat the brilliant All Blacks.

In 2007 when they won it for a second time, there were just two – Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen. Integration of black players crawled rather than cruised.

On Saturday in Yokohama, there were six on the field at the start of play, with Herschel Jantjies a seventh coming off the bench. More than a third of the 31-man squad – 12 – are black, with Siya Kolisi the first black man to skipper the Springboks.

John Smit, the legendary captain in France 12 years ago, said in the build-up to the final: “It was iconic when Francois lifted the World Cup with Madiba, and it was amazing to be able to do it myself with Thabo (Mbeki).

“But if Siya touches that trophy on Saturday… I tell you, it will be a far greater moment than 1995. Far greater. It would change the trajectory of our country.”

Kolisi has. And now they really must build on it.

HAD ENGLAND PLAYED THEIR FINAL?

England

Any non-English fan was hoping this week that the Red Rose had played their final against the All Blacks last week. There might be a sliver of truth to that, but realistically they looked nervous and were simply second best all evening.

All over the park, the Springboks were superior. Momentum is a funny thing in sport and from the first minute England were under the cosh, penalised by Jerome Garces for not rolling away at the ruck which gave the South Africans a penalty.

Pollard was off target but then England lost the hugely influential Kyle Sinckler, who was sparked out by his own team-mate Maro Itoje, and then they got spun around in the scrum by a forward pack 20kg lighter. It was a disastrous start all round and, as ridiculous as it sounds, they were simply unable to recover.

Ben Youngs threw a wayward pass that looked like it was aimed at the touch judge. George Ford kicked out on the full, Itoje and Tom Curry – all-conquering against the All Blacks – proved they’re human after all with knock-ons.

There were six handling errors in the first half alone – only against the USA and Argentina had England erred more in 80 minutes. At full time the stats sheet read 14 overall.

England’s early nerves unsettled them. South Africa capitalised and bullied them in the set-piece, laying the foundation for victory. This was a missed opportunity for Eddie Jones’ men.

SPRINGBOARD TO SUCCESS

South Africa

Embarrassed 57-0 by the All Blacks to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup. What a whirlwind 25 months it has been for Springbok rugby.

It’s been an unprecedented turnaround for a nation who suffered one of the tournament’s biggest-ever shocks at the last World Cup, while only this year have they recorded more wins than losses in a calendar year since 2015.

But Rassie Erasmus has picked a nation off the canvas and from that record low and suckerpunch by the Brave Blossoms in 2015, they have now risen to the top of the heavyweight division.

The most amazing thing is the margin and superiority of their victory. After winning the Rugby Championship there was hope, but this was supposed to be a Springbok side in transition. This World Cup was supposed to be a building block for them, but where a bourgeoning Red Rose bloomed. Instead, their young talents wilted as the Rainbow Nation shone.

We knew the Springboks’ formidable pack would be key to their chances of winning. But as much as their brutish physicality was a factor, the South African pack was simply more dynamic than England’s.

Although Sinckler going off sunk England morale early, Erasmus’ side’s hope might have eroded when Lood de Jager – their best forward at this tournament – went off with that looked like a dislocated shoulder after 212 minutes. Injury also forced hooker Bongi Mbonambi off before the break.

But the Boks were unbowed. Duane Vermeulen was a colossus, running the joint fourth most metres (49) and second most carries (11) for the winners.

In a year when there is perhaps no standout candidate among the six nominees for the World Rugby Player of the Year, Pieter-Steph du Toit’s herculean performance – 11 tackles (61 for the tournament) married with composure and game-management – could see him get the nod. He would be a deserved winner and a first forward since Brodie Retallick in 2014.

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