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England vs South Africa felt like the least likely combination of finalists ahead of the semi-finals. It was hard to see New Zealand losing but should England reach the final it felt destined that they would be pitched against the fierce old rivals of Wales. The All Blacks versus the Springboks also had a certain air of pre-destination, if only because the organizers may have hoped that the big game of the opening weekend would be given a re-run on the last night of the tournament.
Rugby World Cup Final 2019: Springboks vs England Live
But, here we are with England vs South Africa. England somewhat surprisingly comprehensively outplaying New Zealand. Once again it seemed that the All Blacks, so fabulous when dictating proceedings, did not quite know what to do when facing a match they weren’t prepared for against opponents who showed no fear and little respect. It almost felt as if England had outmaneuvered the All Blacks from the moment they showed their V-shaped response to the Haka – as if encircling and ensnaring New Zealand’s spirit.
New Zealand’s triumphs at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups seemed to have buried the belief that the All Blacks had a mental block over the tournament that every four years sees them installed as favorites before succumbing to rivals who peaked at just the right time. Now the Kiwis will face another period of introspection and self-doubt.
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The South Africans have rarely seemed fluent during this tournament and were beaten in their opening match – albeit against the All Blacks. But they have been grinding out the results with the air of a team on a mission. The weathered the Japanese storm in the quarter-final and just outlived Wales in the semi.
Now they are set for a rematch of the 2007 World Cup final in Paris, where South Africa claimed the trophy with little difficulty. Then jt was England who were fortuitous to have reached the final. In that edition of the World Cup the South Africans decimated England 36-0 in the group stage before winning more comfortably than 15-6 would suggest in the final in Paris.
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Frans Steyn – the sole survivor in either side from the 2007 World Cup final in Paris – said he was enjoying this week more than he did 12 years ago: “I was young then and thought there would be another opportunity. Now I know this is my last one and you have to make it count. You only have to look at 2007 to know what a final is about. We had beaten England in the group stage and they had problems in their camp, but they gave us a very close game. It is just about winning, not by how much.”
At this World Cup South Africa strolled through the group stage after that reverse to the All Blacks, crushing the minnows of Namibia, Canada and Italy. But in the big games, against tougher opponents, it has been much more brutal and clinical. South Africa’s back line have scarcely seen the ball as the forwards battered their opponents into submission. The ball has barely reached even Handré Pollard at fly-half with blond scrum half Faf de Klerk box kicking at every opportunity.
Pollard has, however, been deadly when kicking for goal, slotting between the posts at all four penalty and one conversion attempt in the semi-final.
Such is South Africa’s forward dominance that almost the entire pack was replaced against Wales with no dip in performance, indeed, merely just a continuation of the power game. Only flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit and number eight Duane Vermeulen playing for the full 80 minutes.
England’s pack is not lacking in power either, with second-rower Maro Itoje a stand-out performer against New Zealand.
England, of course, also have plenty of talent behind the pack, but with whichever combination of half-backs they field at any given moment in the match, expect plenty of kicking for position from George Ford and Owen Farrell.
Once upon a time a match up of such powerful packs would dominate much of a match before the forwards tired and opportunities opened up for the backs. With professional rugby now a game of 23 players, the ability to send on virtually an entire new pack means that the forward battle never relents. Opportunities may be few and far between for the backs and may be restricted to moments of broken play from the aerial bombardments of both half-back pairings.
It would be lovely to see running tries from the likes of Jonny May and Makazole Mapimpi but instead expect a juddering battle of wills from the packs and the backs feeding off scraps.
South Africa’s coach Rassie Erasmus, did, however, warn England to expect a tactical battle and not just the much-hyped physical one for which they are prepared.
Erasmus, who is at his first World Cup while England’s Eddie Jones has been at four, said this week: “He is a brilliant coach and I had the privilege of working with him for a couple of weeks before the 2007 World Cup. He has a great work ethic, knows what he wants and he does not stop, a workaholic. He gets the best out of players and likes to keep opposition coaches busy by saying things while he remains on task. I can’t do that.”
Who will lift the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2019? My heart says England but my head fears South Africa.