TOKYO, 2 Nov – A preview of the final between England and South Africa which kicks off at 18:00 on Saturday at International Stadium Yokohama.
The Big Picture
Japan have already made Rugby World Cup 2019 a tournament to remember, not just for being welcoming hosts but for changing the world order, moving up the rankings with famous wins against Ireland and Scotland and making their first appearance in the knockout stages.
Now England aim to make their own mark on the world order by striking a blow for the northern hemisphere against their supposed betters from the south. A formidable South Africa team stand in their way, and could ruin everything for Eddie Jones’s team in what promises to be a fascinating final of contrasting styles.
The Springboks have their own momentous landmark in sight. Should they win, Siya Kolisi would become the first black captain to lead South Africa - or any other team - to the title. That, according to the 2007 Springbok winner Bryan Habana, would unite his country and “would have a much greater impact than 95”, when Nelson Mandela famously donned a Springbok shirt.
Jones has led England to the top of the world rankings in spectacular style in recent weeks but that is not nearly enough to satisfy him or his players. If England do not win in Yokohama they will regard their seven weeks in Japan, and four years of preparation before then, as a failure.
That much was clear from the post-match reaction last weekend. England overwhelmed New Zealand, the champions and favourites, with a magnificent performance that was described by Lawrence Dallaglio – a winner with England at RWC 2003 - as “their most complete for some time, perhaps ever”.
England’s captain, Owen Farrell, spent the first few seconds after the final whistle not in celebrating, but in consoling a beaten Jordie Barrett. Ian McGeechan, who coached the British and Irish Lions for years, was impressed.
“There was no punching of the air, no hint they saw this as some sort of end goal, simply a recognition that they had navigated one important staging point on the road to their final destination. I loved that,” the Scot said.
If South Africa, who lost their opening game to the All Blacks and are striving to become the first team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup despite a defeat along the way, cannot stop them England will complete a remarkable clean sweep against all four southern hemisphere sides within a month. They beat Argentina 39-10, Australia 40-16, and New Zealand 19-7 - and even the All Blacks admit that it could have been more.
England are the only northern hemisphere side ever to have won the Rugby World Cup, whereas New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have collectively won seven times. A second triumph for the north, by a team who finished fifth and second in the past two Six Nations Championships, would surely provide a lift for European rugby. It might even go down well in France, whose young team should be contenders when they host RWC 2023.
Jones knows England must adapt if they want to make inroads against South Africa’s solid defence. The Springboks have won the Rugby World Cup twice without scoring or conceding a try in those finals. The boot has ruled both matches, in 1995 against New Zealand and in 2007, when Percy Montgomery’s kicks were enough to see off England 15-6 in Paris. Handre Pollard, a contender to be leading points-scorer in Japan, will hope to emulate Montgomery in Yokohama.
Pollard kicked 14 points in the Springboks’ narrow win over Wales in the semi-final, a match that was from another world compared to the England-New Zealand game 24 hours earlier, which featured expansive rugby and relentless attacking intent.
Jones believes his team have an all-court game, one that will counter the more limited approach of the Springboks under Rassie Erasmus. The Boks coach, who reverts to his role as director of rugby after the tournament, has plotted a clever course to the final by using the tactical kicking of half-backs Pollard and Faf de Klerk to supplement a massive pack that is bolstered in the second half by equally bulky replacements.
A tense, cagey match seems likely given that the finalists have the two best defensive records at RWC 2019.
Form guide (most recent matches first)
South Africa: WWWWW
Played 42 – South Africa 25W – England 15W – Drawn 2
In the spotlight
In his final game as an international referee Jerome Garces, of France, has the responsibility of delivering a match to end what has been a remarkable Rugby World Cup. His control of the breakdown, scrum and offside line – aided by his assistant referees and the Television Match Official – will have an enormous bearing on not only the result but also the quality of the spectacle being shown around the globe. This has been a ground-breaking tournament, hosted by a nation that has embraced the world’s best players and the stage is set for a final to do justice to what has gone before.
Cheslin Kolbe has recovered from an ankle injury to take his place on the right wing when many were calling for him to replace the inconsistent Willie le Roux at full-back. South Africa’s back three are shorter then their English opposite numbers and that could be a major factor in the aerial battle that will take place. Coach Erasmus has again gone with a six forwards, two backs split in the replacements.
England were relieved when ball-carrying tight-head prop Kyle Sinckler recovered from a leg injury, along with captain Owen Farrell and wing Jonny May, who both suffered “dead” legs against New Zealand. Their only change is on the replacements bench where scrum-half Ben Spencer takes over from the injured Willi Heinz, having arrived in Japan on Monday.
Stats & Trivia
England have picked the youngest team to start a RWC final in the professional era with an average age of 27 years and 60 days.
England have the best defensive record at RWC 2019, having conceded 43 points in five games at an average of 8.6. South Africa are not far behind: 55 in six games at 9.2.
“Our whole mindset this week about is taking the game to South Africa, playing with no fear, where can we take our game to.” - Eddie Jones, England head coach.
“Rugby is one of the things that – for a few minutes and sometimes a few hours, days and months if we win – people seem to forget about their disagreements.” - Rassie Erasmus, South Africa coach, on the impact of rugby on his country.