Yes that magical moment that only comes around once every four years is finally upon us. The World Cup final! It’s been a tournament full of twists and surprises. Japan’s meteoric rise to superstar status, England’s demolition of New Zealand – the list goes on. Meanwhile France and Ireland held true to form and squandered their chances at glory in the quarter finals. France blew it through their mercurial form and a blatant act of stupidity. Ireland meanwhile peaked far too early and by the time the tournament kicked off were out of ideas and essentially a spent force needing to go back to the drawing board. Wales it has to be said found themselves lucky to make the semis courtesy of France, but much like Ireland seemed to run out of steam as the tournament progressed. Australia’s dismal form of the last few years continued and much like Ireland their quarter final exit was clearly on the cards before the tournament even began.
So six weeks later here we are and it’s England versus South Africa. England in many ways have been a revelation and if a team has had the perfect trajectory to the final then it is Eddie Jones’ Men in White. They have simply got better and better with every match of 2019, and without a doubt look the most complete unit in this World Cup. A bruising yet highly mobile and skilled set of forwards, a slick half back pairing to manage proceedings and a set of backs that pack grace, power and speed. Whichever way you cut it they fully deserve their shot at glory on Saturday, and it is going to take a monumental effort from South Africa to derail the English World Cup Express.
South Africa may have lost to New Zealand in their opening match, and the history books seem to indicate that that is as good as the kiss of death in a World Cup final. South Africa’s road to the final may not have been pretty, but brutally efficient it has been. They may not have been the most imaginative team in the tournament, but defensively they pose an enormous challenge. In short, this is a team it is very difficult to wear down, and the physical costs of doing so are enormous. England may be the more creative side, but South Africa have the potential to put up probably the most resolute defense the English have faced all year. South Africa have their own X-factor in the shape of winger Cheslin Kolbe, so that although they may not have the overall pace and imagination of England out wide, they can still be a threat. Couple that to a forward pack that England will be able to go toe to toe with, but the question remains at what cost physically? In short, nothing is guaranteed on Saturday even if on paper the odds would tend to favor England.
England definitely can and we think should get to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on Saturday for the second time in the tournament’s history, but South Africa will have a lot to say about it and clearly fancy their chances of lifting it themselves for a third time. It should be an epic contest and one worthy of a final, so here’s what got us talking.
England vs South Africa – Saturday, November 2nd – Yokohama
Two big bruising sides meet at Rugby’s ultimate crossroads on Saturday. South Africa are better known for being a side that will simply obliterate an opposition through sheer physical prowess, while England have shown both creativity and a pace and power that can be a match for anyone. England look the most complete side, but whether or not it can break down the kind of Berlin Wall that South Africa represents remains to be seen.
England have gone from strength to strength in 2019, but South Africa have also undergone a dramatic transformation under Coach Rassie Erasmus in the last eighteen months. His job will be done come the final whistle on Saturday, but there is no doubt that he has provided his charges with a sense of belief that November 2nd could be their day. It remains to be seen however, if a relatively one dimensional game plan, albeit built around a daunting physical presence on the pitch, will be enough to overcome an English outfit that has managed to combine brawn with pace and creativity.
Expect the front rows from both sides to stand firm, but England’s offering to create more opportunity once the ball is loose
South Africa have a very good scrum, and with the likes of Tendai”Beast” Mtawarira in the mix it’s unlikely to budge much under English pressure. However, once the ball comes loose we just feel the English trio of Sinckler, George and Vunipola are likely to do more with it than the South Africans. If England can really put South Africa under the pump here for the first hour, then they may well have done enough to negate the impact of South Africa’s bench replacements in the front row. Vincent Koch, Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx in particular are well known for their ability to create absolute havoc and we’d argue are a much more dangerous offering than England have on the bench. How much South Africa have been made to go backwards here in the first hour will determine how much of an impact a dangerous Springbok bench are likely to have. If the scores are close then England could be in trouble here come the three quarters mark.
The most fascinating and telling contest of the afternoon – the second and back row battles
Let’s be honest, perhaps apart from seeing what Cheslin Kolbe can do, this is the contest we are all most looking forward to on Saturday. South Africa have an outstanding back row, and Captain Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen are back to their very best, while as regular readers know, we rate Pieter-Steph du Toit as one of the best in the world. By the same token however, there is no getting away from the fact that the English back row of youngsters Sam Underhill and Tom Curry or the “Kamikaze kids” as they have become known as, are rapidly becoming the new global benchmark on what you want your back row to look and operate like. Add into the mix the bruising power of Billy Vunipola and there is no question that that English back row is going to take some beating on Saturday. It’s powerful, fast and highly mobile and as good as South Africa are, we feel they are going to have trouble matching up to such a well drilled and highly skilled English unit. Much like the front row though, keep the scorelines tight and England may find themselves in hot water come the sixty minute mark as that South African bench comes into play. This is perhaps even more prevalent when talking of the second rows. Maro Itoje has been in a class of his own for England this tournament, and in our opinion can easily negate the physicality and in your face niggles of South Africa particularly at the lineout. However, both Franco Mostert and the rather terrifying prospect of South Africa’s own “caveman” RG Snyman on the bench is something we doubt England are looking forward to having to contend with. Once again if the scores are tight here as we get to the final twenty expect some bother for England.
England’s game management should prove superior
Although Handre Pollard had a superb outing for the Springboks at fly half in their semi-final win over Wales, we were not as impressed with the South African half back pairing as a unit. England look sharper here in George Ford and Ben Youngs allied to Owen Farrell’s ability to pull strings from the center and shift back to number ten when needed. In our opinion, Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk’s box kicking last weekend was almost a liability for South Africa. South Africa kicked away far too much valuable possession last weekend, without really providing a platform for their backs to work off. A lot of it seemed pointless and had Wales been a bit more adventurous last Sunday it could have all gone rather sideways for South Africa. Given England’s abilities under the high ball, this could prove a very costly tactic for the Springboks on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see if de Klerk has been instructed to keep the kicking to a minimum. The English triumvirate just look like they have a better sense of what they are trying to achieve and a back line more than capable of using the platforms they create to their full advantage. South Africa just don’t look creative enough here to really bother England in our opinion. Pollard may excel at punishing England with the boot, if the contact aspect of the game leads to lapses in English discipline, but whether or not he will be able to pull the strings in the same way the Farrell/Ford axis can, remains to be seen.
South Africa need to go wide and have plenty of gas to do so
South Africa bring two very exciting wingers to Saturday’s contest. South African supporters will be delighted to see the return of Cheslin Kolbe, as will every neutral on Saturday. Makazole Mapimpi is a flyer of note and has really grown into the tournament, but Kolbe is South Africa’s biggest X-factor. While he may provide plenty of excitement in open space, he has also shown that he can defend and tackle well beyond his own weight. Just watch him bringing down New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick at speed if you don’t believe us. To match them England boast perhaps the fastest man in rugby’s 100 metre sprint through Jonny May, and Anthony Watson has been outstanding in both attack and defense for the Men in White. The English pair have been given much more work to do this tournament by their half backs than their South African counterparts, and there is no doubt they go into this match as the more well rounded and finely tuned unit. At fullback South Africa have looked distinctly vulnerable, and last weekend Willie le Roux struggled to hang onto the ball throughout the match. With Elliot Daly having a power boot to get England out of trouble as well as being consistently reliable in the air, expect to see Francois Steyn on the pitch sooner rather than later to provide South Africa with some parity here, unless le Roux ends up having one of those blinders he occasionally pulls out his hat. Despite the presence of Kolbe here for South Africa, we think overall England are packing a set of backs and centers who are much more comfortable operating as a unit. South Africa seem to operate more as a group of individuals in the backs and this could ultimately be their undoing on Saturday, as they don’t quite have the seamless transition between the physical prowess of their forwards and the speed of their backs, a linkage that England seems to have mastered.
It’s all in the benches
This is where, as we’ve said throughout this piece, the match could well be won or lost. While England perhaps offer the more cohesive starting fifteen, South Africa have the bench to unravel what good work it may have done, should the scores be close come the sixty minute mark. Also with the injury to replacement scrum half for England Willi Heinz, England Coach Eddie Jones has been forced to draft in Ben Spencer who has not played in this tournament so far, and it’s a big ask for him to come to the fore in such a high stakes match. South Africa’s scrum half replacement Herschel Jantjies, while only having a few Test caps under his belt has not seemed to suffer from stage fright whatsoever for the big occasions, and along with Kolbe is another part of South Africa’s X-factor component. England themselves pack a star studded bench, and anyone would want the likes of Dan Cole, Jonathan Joseph, Mark Wilson and George Kruis backing up their efforts, but we just feel overall South Africa are packing the more tried and trusted bigger guns on their bench.
Form and the history books would seem to hand this one to England, and we have a hard time disagreeing with that assertion. England’s performance against New Zealand was something to behold, and combined the attractiveness of Japan’s offloading game with a physical presence that suffocated the All Blacks. It was an inventive and highly mobile performance from England that highlighted a superb all round skill set and the power and pace to keep the opposition at bay. Overall England have looked the most complete and well rounded team of the tournament, and they will be very hard to beat. South Africa’s motivation will be off the charts and expect them to give England an exceptionally tough physical challenge, but whether or not they will be able to match’s England’s imagination and creativity is up for debate. South Africa will have to do much more than simply bludgeon England into submission, and to date we haven’t really seen them demonstrate an ability to adapt their game plan to do otherwise. Nevertheless, Saturday’s final sees two of rugby’s finest brains in terms of the Coaching box in Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus, so who knows how this week’s training sessions have gone. In short, these are two teams who will spare no punches and will throw everything at tomorrow’s proceedings. It should be a tense and at times tight affair, but pick a winner we must and for now our gut is saying a more clinical and well structured English team to get their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy by four points!