TOKYO — After two Rugby World Cup cycles of New Zealand dominance, rugby is ready for a fresh name to adorn the Webb Ellis Cup.
Saturday’s World Cup final in Yokohama will throw up a clash of hemispheres, styles and backstories as England face South Africa in the ninth final of rugby’s biggest competition.
Something has to give. Either South Africa break tradition and become the first side to lose a match yet win a World Cup, which would be their third global triumph after 1995 and 2007, or England take the trophy back to the northern hemisphere for the first time since their 2003 triumph.
It has been a glorious five weeks of rugby. Those wondrous tries from the Japan side in the pool phase, particularly against Ireland and Scotland, will linger long in the memory, so too the respect they and their supporters showed their opposition. Remember back to the start when Uruguay knocked over Fiji, following a titanic clash between the All Blacks and South Africa — that was all in the first few days of the competition. It seems a year ago. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of memories from a tournament for the ages.
But all of those memories are filed in the chapters leading up to the final. The paths of both England and the Springboks to this stage have been dotted with ‘sliding doors’ moments, but again this competition has offered us the unpredictable as the four-year form guide was thrown out the window.
This tournament has been played out by two teams peaking at the same time, albeit from vastly different foundations. Will the Springboks’ tactics of bludgeoning the opponent into submission work? Or will England’s all-court style of rugby win out, anchored on physicality and ruthless attacking? This is the biggest week of these players’ lives, and pulling the strings are two coaches who will leave no stone unturned in preparation.
Click the links below to skip to a section:
• The intertwined histories of Jones and Erasmus
• Eddie Jones: The mellowed competitor
• Rassie Erasmus: Grabbing the poisoned chalice
• The quiet captains: Siya Kolisi & Owen Farrell
• The unseen influencers: Inside the backroom staffs
• The hype: A World Cup final pressure cooker
• The tactics: Something has to give
• The key players: Faf de Klerk & Maro Itoje
• Tom Hamilton’s World Cup final prediction
The intertwined histories of Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus
Both England coach Eddie Jones and Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus are master tacticians, have a relentless work ethic and are born competitors. But had fate handed them a different hand, then Jones would be sat watching this World Cup from Cape Town while Erasmus would be in the south west of Ireland.
Their careers are inextricably linked through serendipity with World Cups interfering with best laid plans.
The two crossed like ships in the night back in July 2007. Jones had guided Australia to the World Cup final in 2003 — where they were suffered the knockout blow of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the last minute of extra-time in the final — and was dismissed by the Wallabies in 2005. But two years on, when he was preparing to take up a three-year deal with English Premiership club Saracens, the number of then South Africa coach Jake White popped up on his phone.
Erasmus had been all set to be the Springboks’ technical advisor for their 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign when he was headhunted by Cape Town-based Western Province. He took up the role, and White turned to Jones to fill the gap on a consultancy basis. Jones proved the catalyst the Boks needed and they went on to lift the trophy for the second time. Little did Jones and Erasmus know then that 12 years later they’d be facing each other in a World Cup final.
By his own admission, Jones would not be coach of England had it not been for Japan’s remarkable win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The four-year contract he signed with the Stormers ahead of that tournament was then ripped up after the RFU flew to Cape Town, chequebook in hand, seeking Jones to sort out the national team after a disastrous 2015 campaign see them become the first — and still the only — host nation to exit a Rugby World Cup at the pool phase.
In the near four years since, Jones has completely revolutionised England’s rugby fortunes and this will be his third World Cup final, but he only has memories of his previous two. When his belongings were in transit from Japan to Cape Town to London, a box was lost. In that were his two World Cup medals from 2003 and 2007.
On the flip side, had Japan not shocked South African rugby out of its slumber then there’s every chance Erasmus might still be at Munster on the three-year deal he signed in 2016. Instead, after the Boks’ awful 2016 where they suffered a record-breaking eight defeats, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) came knocking on Erasmus’ door and he returned in Dec. 2017 for his fourth spell in the national team setup — this time as director of rugby after posts as technical advisor (2007), technical specialist (2011) and general manager for their high-performance teams (2012-2016).
Eddie Jones: The mellowed competitorEddie Jones masterminded a brilliant tactical display by England against the All Blacks to reach his second World Cup final as a coach, having lost to England with Australia in 2003. Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images
In October 2013, while in charge of Japan, Eddie Jones suffered a stroke. He suffered temporary paralysis down his left side and was hospitalised for six weeks. Now, looking back, he feels that was the moment where he learnt to be calmer and understand some aspects of rugby were out of his control.
Mind you, having spent the last four years covering Jones’ England tenure, if this is a calmer man, then a feistier, more cutting version is a frightening prospect. Talk to those in the England camp and they say ‘ask when he sleeps’ as you’ll get messages from him at 4am, while he answers emails at any time up to and beyond midnight. He simply adores rugby and dedicates his life to it.
Do not mistake this calmer Jones for a less competitive coach. Matt Cockbain, the former Wallabies forward, played under Jones and was part of the squad for the 2003 final and tells how “you didn’t want to get on Eddie’s wrong side” back in his “fierier” days.
“He used to run the young blokes pretty hard,” Cockbain told me earlier this week. “We had young lads like Phil Waugh and George Smith, the openside flankers, and he’d take them for extra sessions after training had finished and you’d see them going at each other for another 30 minutes after that. It would be basic stuff like, ‘George, here’s the ball, Waughy – get it off him’. He was very good at toughening guys up.”
Jones still works his young players hard and still has a relentless desire to win, hates losing and has his own views on how the sport should be played. After Italy concocted a plan to cause England difficulty in the 2017 Six Nations where they did not contest rucks, Jones said to reporters afterwards: “Are you guys going to ask for your money back? Because that was not rugby.”
When Jones took over England, they were at their lowest ebb. He spoke in his opening press conference in Dec. 2015 of how he was going to turn this team into world beaters — having just covered the 2015 World Cup where England had failed to get through their pool, this idealistic thought seemed a world away. He started by leaving behind folk he felt he couldn’t carry through to 2019 and wanted a group of players who would buy into his ethos while also searching out every last ounce of their own personal improvement.
The impact was immediate as England won the 2016 Grand Slam with a 100% record in the Six Nations, and put together a record-breaking 18 wins on the trot, a run which included a 3-0 series whitewash of the Wallabies on Australian soil. Jones’ England would go on to win the 2017 Six Nations but in 2018 had their predictable slump, where they finished fifth in the championship and lost to South Africa 2-1 in the June series. At the time, Jones refused to shy away from criticism but reiterated his earlier warnings of there being an inevitable period in the four-year cycle where the team’s fortunes would tail off.
Early in Eddie Jones’ reign, he explained his plan to make England a 2019 World Cup winning team.
The slump signalled the start of the second phase of his England project as he pressed the reset button and brought in some new faces while phasing out some more experienced personnel like Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, Mike Brown and the now retired James Haskell. In their place came Sam Underhill, Tom Curry and Kyle Sinckler while those who remained, like Billy Vunipola and Jonny May, continued their season-on-season evolution into world-class players.
“He’s a master of the mental side of things,” Cockbain said. “If you’re not prepared in the head for what’s to come then you’re never going to win. That comes down to belief and he instils belief and confidence in players and that shows in performance and execution.”
Jones always seems to see things differently to the rest of us: while we were getting excited about Saracens fullback Alex Goode and Gloucester fly-half Danny Cipriani’s form, he preferred other options and laughed in the face of general consensus. Moments of strife are looked at as character building. He earmarked the 76 minutes they played last November against Argentina with 14 men after Elliot Daly’s red card as a key exercise, rather than an ordeal. The most valuable week was the one leading up to their bizarre draw with Scotland in the Six Nations in March this year — England led that match 31-0 at halftime, conceded 38 points in a row and needed a last-gasp try for a crazy draw.
But it is part of an evolution which has peaked with their form here in Japan where they have found their own style of ‘English rugby’, anchored on a solid set piece, and the ability to play with width, strength and pace.
The players speak of how Jones is omnipotent and omniscient when they’re in camp, and isn’t afraid of throwing the odd curve ball at them to keep them on their toes. They’d talk of conversations in the corridors where Jones would say something like “you looked slow today mate” and that was the kick up the behind they needed. It was enough. But to a man, they all credit Jones with having taken their games to the next level.
“You always get honesty with Eddie, you know exactly where you stand,” Daly said Tuesday. “He has coached against so many teams that come Monday morning, he knows exactly how we are going to beat the team on the weekend, and we all buy into that, and it’s worked so far in the tournament and hopefully we can do it again come Saturday.”
There were still the odd example of the old Jones poking through, like his reaction against Argentina in Nov. 2017 where he was picked up by the television cameras shouting “how f—–g stupid are we?” after Underhill gave away a penalty.
“When you’re a rugby coach you devote yourself to the game,” Jones said before the All Blacks victory in last weekend’s semifinal. “That is a choice we make. We only do it because we love it, because we love the game. I don’t put a percentage on it but I know the most important thing is to coach this team well and I’ve certainly felt I’ve given a total commitment to that job.”
Rassie Erasmus: Grabbing the poisoned chaliceRassie Erasmus doesn’t expect the World Cup final to be easy on the eye. Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images
Under the personable, smiling Rassie Erasmus you see in press conferences lies a man renowned for unbelievable attention to detail and inherent competitive nature.
It’s almost a Faustian split: you have on one hand the Erasmus who talks of having a lucky shirt, which he only changes when they lose (he’s worn the same one since their opening weekend pool stage defeat to the All Blacks). But then you hear the story of his first Munster team meeting where although the exact number of expletives he delivered depends on who you talk to, he basically read the players their fortune and told them whatever they thought or did in the past was irrelevant, it was his way of doing things now. Disagree and the door wouldn’t hit you on the way out.
Regardless which side of that split you’re on, there is no doubting the remarkable job he has done with the Springboks. Like the England team Jones took over, Erasmus inherited a basket case of a team from previous coach Allister Coetzee, who had won just 11 Tests out of 22 between the 2016 and 2017 schedules. The Boks were sixth in the world, and in a dismal, muddled place on and off the field — a far cry of the side once feared by teams the world over.
Erasmus was never really meant to be Boks coach here at the World Cup. When he re-joined SARU in December 2017 as director of rugby, the original plan was for Coetzee to lead the day-to-day running and management of the side while Erasmus would take in the bigger picture. But eventually he took on the temporary reins through to Japan and he started by ripping everything back to basics.
“It’s an incredible turnaround,” World Cup-winning captain John Smit told me this week. “Eighteen months ago, we couldn’t buy a win — if you offered us a quarterfinal [at this World Cup] we’d have gladly taken it.
“Rassie’s simplified things. He hasn’t tried to cover all the bases. He’s focused on the things this group of players is good at and that’s what any good coach does. He looks at what he’s got and sees 16 monstrous South Africans who are over two metres tall, and thinks, ‘geez, what am I going to do with these blokes?’ Well, you’re certainly not going to run it from end to end. So, he’s done well in picking out how this group can get wins.”
Erasmus also made the early decision to scrap limits on overseas players, where previously those outside of South Africa could only be picked if they had at least 30 caps. This meant he could recall the likes of Faf de Klerk — who was nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018 — and the outstanding Toulouse winger Cheslin Kolbe, two players who have been instrumental in steering the Boks to this final. He also spoke of how he refocused the group, who had previously been looking for better pay cheques in moving from franchise to franchise, while Kolisi said before Eramus arrived, the players were too concerned on growing their own social media profile.
The players have bought into Erasmus’ ethos of complete transparency and meritocratic selections.
“I truly believe that he is the sort of coach that has a very honest opinion of each player, and will tell it to you honestly,” Springboks hooker Bongi Mbonambi said. “He is not the type of coach that will maybe do things behind closed doors. He does it openly, in front of the whole team, and everyone knows about it. He doesn’t put you in a box, and that’s what has been the outstanding thing in the team this year.”
South African rugby has been a political minefield as the amateur side of the game still clashes against the professional side, all under the umbrella of the need for transformation in the post-Apartheid era. But Erasmus’ Springboks have been progressive, and his matchday squads are close to hitting the desired target of 50 percent representation as set out in the ‘Strategic Transformation Development Plan‘.
“To me and everyone in this team, it doesn’t really matter about your skin colour or where you come from,” Mbonambi said. “Rassie will pick a guy who is there to work hard, and does the job perfectly well, and you earn your way into this team.
“Comparing him to previous coaches, it was like you pick someone who has been there for years, even though we can see he is not pulling his weight. Now, you get picked by the work that you do, and how you execute it.”
Since Erasmus took charge, the Boks managed to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2018 for the first time since 2009 and won the 2019 Rugby Championship, losing just one match this year.
Erasmus will stand down as head coach after Saturday’s final, keen to continue as director of rugby which takes him through to the end of the 2023 World Cup, a role which will preside over all SA rugby structures. But leaving on your own terms is a break from the norm when it comes to the Springboks’ top job.
South African writer Gavin Rich penned a book called ‘The Poisoned Chalice’, a book about how Springboks coaches all started with a rise, before succumbing to the fall. The last to leave with their stock still high was 1995-winning coach Kitch Christie. So far, Erasmus has defied history and will step aside with his head held high.
The quiet captains: Siya Kolisi and Owen FarrellEither South Africa’s Siya Kolisi, left, or England’s Owen Farrell, centre, will lift the Webb Ellis Cup as the winning captain on Saturday. David Rogers/Getty Images
Siya Kolisi was 16 years old when the Springboks last won the World Cup in 2007. When then captain John Smit lifted the Webb Ellis Cup into the Paris night sky, Kolisi was 13,000 kilometres away watching in a tavern in Zwide township in South Africa’s eastern cape.
On Saturday Kolisi will walk his side out in Yokohama, on his 50th cap, as the Springboks’ first black captain. It is a remarkable story of hope and inspiration.
Kolisi played for a local club near Port Elizabeth named African Bombers. It was at this time when he was 10, that he held his grandmother as she died, and six years on his mother passed away. Amid the battle for daily survival in extreme poverty, and avoiding falling into crime, Kolisi continued to play rugby. He caught the eye at a youth tournament and was given a scholarship to sporting powerhouse Grey High School. From there he went into the Eastern Province system before joining the Western Province in 2010.
If the Springboks win on Saturday, and Kolisi lifts the trophy, then it will hold an importance in South African society similar to 1995 when Nelson Mandela handed the trophy to Francois Pienaar, according to legendary winger Bryan Habana. Kolisi was born in 1991, so has few memories of that iconic moment, but he experienced first-hand what the 2007 triumph did for the country.
“I know what it did for us back then,” Kolisi said. “I have never seen people come together over sport [like that].” Now it’s Kolisi who hopes to offer that beacon of hope and unity.
Kolisi leads by example in the Springboks’ back-row. He is not one to shout and holler, but instead keeps his head down with his relentless work ethic and chooses his moments to offer encouragement, guidance and leadership.
“Siya’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders in terms of the role as captain, with regards to the make-up of our country and our nation — where we’ve come from, where we are right now,” Boks back-row Francois Louw said. “It’s a role he’s grasped fully.”
The image of Smit lifting the World Cup is still etched at the forefront of Kolisi’s mind and he has been impressed by how he has led this group of Boks. “He’s not a talker, he’s a warrior,” Smit said. “He leads by the way he behaves and plays and the group respects his journey of what he’s done in his life to get where he is in the way he speaks and behaves.
“He’s a captain who’d never command anything but it just happens.
“People understand the gravitas he has as a person and the struggle he’s had in his life to get where he is and the fact he uses that as power to make the people around him better as well.”
Erasmus never thought of the wider ramifications of picking South Africa’s first black captain, but now understands the significance and importance for the country.
“It’s his 50th Test match, and it is fitting and a wonderful occasion for a guy to be the captain, the first black captain — now it’s also sunk into me,” Erasmus said. “I understand how big it is, and I am not so naive any more.
“It is a wonderful story, and for him to handle those emotional — not stress — but emotional extras, which come with something that I didn’t expect, is just wonderful, and really, well done by him.”
Jonny Wilkinson says that people shouldn’t judge the Springboks based on how they played in the semifinal.
England captain Owen Farrell’s background and upbringing is a world away from Kolisi’s, but the two have similar leadership qualities. Farrell is an unrelenting competitor and puts body before personal safety for the team — Farrell picked up a dead leg against New Zealand but still played the full 80, with Jones joking you’d have needed a samurai sword to get him off the pitch.
Farrell’s competitive nature was evident when he broke through into Saracens’ team just 11 days after his 17th birthday. Since then he has spearheaded their charge to five Premiership titles, three Champions Cups, and has won 78 England caps and played Tests on two British & Irish Lions tours.
He is rightly regarded as one of the world’s finest players but he has only skippered the side full time since the start of this year, taking over from Dylan Hartley who was Jones’ original captain.
“With Faz the biggest thing is the calmness he’s brought into his game,” says Billy Vunipola. “You can probably hear him shouting on the ref mic all the time, but when there’s a break in play he’s a different guy. He’s a very calming influence on everyone around him.”
Farrell is part of the England leadership group which includes Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola and others, but few know him better than Jamie George, who plays alongside Farrell for Saracens and England.
“He has been a leader since I have known him aged 14,” George said. “Back then it was probably a lot more shouting because of frustration more than anything but now I think he has just developed a huge amount.
“As a leader I can’t speak highly enough of him. He is the sort of person you want to follow. He leads from the front but at the same time I think the big thing is that he is a person you can trust because you know first of all that he is probably the best at it in terms of his rugby ability but also the amount of tape that he watches.
“He is very good at delivering a theme and messages that build up nicely throughout the week. Friday night we have a meeting and we like to call it a captain meeting, a team meeting. There are no coaches in the room. He just asks us how we are feeling and if anyone has anything to say.
“Often people will get something off their chest if they are thinking about the game and then he says his bit and without fail you could hear a pin drop. Everyone is hanging on every word that he says. It is very inspirational without tearing the roof down because that is probably not what is needed but he has a very good feel of what the team needs and what messages he needs to deliver.”
On Saturday evening in Yokohama, one of the two quiet captains will be in the blinding, brightest rugby spotlight, holding the Webb Ellis Cup aloft as all manner of pandemonium ensues around them. They’ll savour the moment, but then fold into being just one face of the 31 in the squad. They’ll find the moment jarring as it clashes with every ounce of their own team-focused persona but one day, you hope they will have a chance to savour it
The unseen influencers: Inside the backroom staffs
Both Rassie Erasmus and Eddie Jones know from their own experiences how backroom staffs can make a World Cup campaign.
Talk to the 2007 Springboks’ backs, and they put huge credit at the door of Jones, who was a consultant in their backroom staff. Then captain John Smit remembers how in Jones’ first training session in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup campaign, the Boks showed him some of their set plays and asked Jones to rank them. Jones replied: “If I’m being generous, about four”. Backs like Jean de Villiers and Butch James immediately took to Jones’ style of coaching — White had already been a disciple of Jones from watching his Australia days from afar — and when Fourie du Preez says, “Jones was one of the main reasons we won the cup”, you listen.
“Having that objective voice was important to the success of the team,” Du Preez said in ‘Our Blood is Green’. “Both the players and the team trusted Eddie 100 percent. Eddie is a tough, tough guy, and he expects the best of you. Most of the best players in the world love him, while the average ones struggle with him.”
Erasmus, who was technical analyst for the Boks at the 2011 World Cup, had to do his own bit of last-minute backroom staff manoeuvring. Swys de Bruin stepped down as Springboks attack coach in August, so Erasmus called in his old Munster lieutenant Felix Jones to fill the vacancy, but in a new role in analysis. There is more than just a touch of Munster to his general backroom staff with brilliant defence coach Jacques Nienaber and fitness coach Aled Walters both on Erasmus’ ticket in Ireland.
Eddie Jones has chopped and changed his backroom staff during his reign as England coach, but the coaching team has been critical to the team’s success at this World Cup. David Rogers/Getty Images
The Springboks have conceded just four tries at this World Cup, and Nienaber deserves huge credit for that, while their scrum has been boosted by the work of Matt Proudfoot. And then there’s Mzwandile Stick, the former Sevens player, who works with the backs but also on their off-the-ball focus.
But speak to those closest to the Springboks, and they give enormous credit to Walters, their head of athletic performance. After they played Japan in their pre-World Cup match, they spent a week in the south of Japan in high temperatures focusing on fitness training. Walters has brought variety to their warm ups, where there is always a ball involved and every session is different.
“The work he’s done, he told us, ‘you’re going to have to work your butt off if you want to make it’,” Mbonambi said of Walters. “It’s not going to be about whether you’ve been there for years or you’re just going to laze your way into the team. Everyone’s been working hard lifting their standards. That’s the way we judge each other in this team.”
Before the tournament started, a photo appeared on social media of the Springboks bare-chested, and, well, ripped. It raised eyebrows, to say the least, but Mbonambi said it was not meant to intimidate the opposition and was them enjoying themselves in the gym.
That’s not to say England are diminutive in comparison. The All Blacks felt the full brunt of England’s power with Sam Underhill unceremoniously chopping down Jordie Barrett and Kieran Read, both no mean feats. The need for physicality has been one of Eddie Jones’ frequent messages during his England tenure and while that has stayed constant, his backroom staff has chopped and changed.
When he took the job, he brought in Paul Gustard for defence, Steve Borthwick for forwards and Neal Hatley as scrum coach, with Jones running the attack. After a series of short-term consultants like Glen Ella and Jason Ryles, Jones has settled on Scott Wisemantel as his attack coach for the World Cup, John Mitchell coming in for Gustard, who left after their June tour of South Africa in 2018, while Borthwick and Hatley are still there. Behind the scenes, on the physical and mental side of the sport, there have been all number of comings and goings but the frequency of fresh views has paid off.
“It’s rigorous, thoughtful and quite diverse in the way the group thinks about the game, which is good, but we all have a responsibility to support our boss,” ex-All Blacks coach Mitchell said of Jones and the England management team. “The more we inform him and give him evidence in a way that could be an advantage is critical in a coaching group.
“The great thing for me is that you are constantly learning and being challenged every day to get better.”
After England knocked over the All Blacks, Jones put a huge amount of credit at his assistant coaches’ door. “Steve Borthwick and Hats [Neal Hatley] with the forwards have done a great job. John Mitchell has come in and improved our defence,” Jones said.
“Paul Gustard did an outstanding job for us but John has come in and given us something a little bit different, the boys love working with him. And Wisey [Scott Wisemantel] is as mad as ever, he’s like a cut snake. He’s got a great relationship with the players, he’s fun, he’s added a lot to our coaching staff.
“If you look at the percentage of work, I should probably give my money back…but I probably won’t.”
The hype: A World Cup final pressure cooker
Business as usual. That’s the message from both the England and South Africa camps this week as they do their best to ignore being one step away from rugby immortality. Those who have won the World Cup all say maintaining normality is essential in the week prior to the final.
“The worst thing you can do is change anything you say or do before a World Cup final as it would add to everyone’s possible leaning towards panic,” World Cup winning-captain John Smit told ESPN. “It’s the one week you change nothing.
“But geez, there’s a lot more noise. Your press conference goes from 25 guys, to 100-150 guys and you realise it’s at a different level to whatever other game you’ve played. You need to block the noise out and create a bubble that works for you, while focusing on the things you’ve done well to get to that position.
“Every guy responds to pressure differently so you have to manage the feeling of the whole group quite well, keep the confidence high and ensure everyone’s in the same space.”
England vs. South Africa
Saturday, November 2
International Stadium Yokohama, Japan
6 p.m. local
9 a.m. GMT
4 a.m. ET
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This week Eddie Jones has been reiterating how his players, despite their momentous win over the All Blacks, have achieved nothing yet, ensuring they don’t get affected by the excitement and hype over their World Cup prospects.
“We’re at the end of a seven-week tournament so it’s about focusing on what’s going to have a significant part of the game,” Jones said about the dynamics of this week. “It’s not about doing everything, it’s about doing certain things right, keeping the players fresh physically, keeping them fresh mentally, making sure they have enough to do off the field and so it’s just getting the balance right. You don’t lack motivation for a World Cup final so our players will be ready to go.
“The big thing for us is holding back the players this week, making sure they don’t go before siren rings.’
Erasmus has had to create his own bubble for the Boks in their journey to the World Cup final. In August Aphiwe Dyanti, the Springboks winger and World Rugby breakthrough player of the year, failed a drugs test, with his b-sample also coming back positive. And in October, SARU started an internal investigation into allegations Eben Etzebeth physically and racially abused a person in late August — an allegation he denies. He has been kept out of the media requirements, with Erasmus ensuring the players stay focused on the task. Whatever the coach has done has worked.
On Tuesday Erasmus faced the media in Chiba, and he was his usual calm, measured self. He told the press they would pick largely the same 23 with Cheslin Kolbe returning. He wasn’t bluffing. His calm persona will inevitably rub off on to his players.
“We are excited, but we feel the pressure and find our ways to handle it, and try to work around it,” Erasmus said. “England have the upper hand in terms of Eddie’s experience, both with South Africa and Australia. But we have tried to find our own ways to handle that, and so far, so good.”
The tactics: Something has to give
The Springboks’ style of rugby is not easy on the eye, but it is effective. It is a self-proclaimed arm-wrestle method of getting across the line. “Rassie’s put together a team in a limited amount of time that plays a specific way and I suppose he hasn’t had enough time to get around to creating an attack as that’s what takes so long,” says John Smit. “Eighteen months to get a team ready for a Rugby World Cup isn’t enough time. They’ve played effectively to the things they’ve been able to put together the easiest and quickest which is a kicking game and a great defence, based around a monstrous pack.”
The team call it ‘South Africa rugby’, and they don’t care one jot if you think it’s boring. “We’ve followed a certain route and played according to the stats, and the way the game is being refereed currently,” Erasmus said. “And what gives you good results in the short term and on the scoreboard. Yes, we accept the criticism, but we are also happy that we are in the position to compete for a World Cup final, which is where we ultimately want to be.”
They came in for criticism for box kicking at every opportunity against Wales, but their philosophy is to win territory, then pressure the opponent to cough up points. It’s the old rugby adage of earning the right to go wide, which they tried to do in their semifinal but failed to due to uncharacteristic errors, so instead it came down to a battle on the turf and in the skies. But their set piece is solid — they’ve lost just one lineout this World Cup.
France’s Jerome Garces will referee Saturday’s final, who, judging from the semifinal he officiated between Wales and South Africa, will allow the players to push the boundaries at the breakdown when it comes to the offside line.
“He is traditionally a good ref, and he’s not one-sided at all,” De Klerk said of Garces. “As players, we must try and get into his head as quick as possible to see how he wants the game to go, to make sure that we don’t get on his wrong side.”
England’s Eddie Jones believes his side can improve on their semi-final win over the All Blacks.
For England, expect them to combine physicality, speed on the ball and accurate kicking to pin South Africa back. New Zealand barely played outside their own half against England, whose set piece was superior. They use their lineout as an attacking weapon and attack through the middle before attempting to force an overlap to put the likes of Jonny May into space.
Eddie Jones used George Ford as one of his ‘finishers’ against Australia, shifted Owen Farrell to fly-half and Manu Tuilagi to No.12, wary of the threat Samu Kerevi posed in the Wallabies’ midfield. The Ford-Farrell partnership was reunited for the semifinal win over New Zealand, where they made a combined 30 tackles and silenced their opposite numbers, and will start again against the Springboks.
So, expect more of the same style against the Boks on Saturday. England will look to attack, they won’t get sucked into a kicking game and will attempt to turn it into a boxing bout, rather than an arm-wrestle.
“They are a massively aggressive physical forward pack,” Jones said. “They are going to be a difficult side to beat. We are going to enjoy the preparations this week, getting ourselves right, we know a couple of areas that we think we can expose them in and we’ll make sure we are well-prepared in those areas.”
Jones and Erasmus have a 2-2 head-to-head record as England and South Africa coaches. South Africa won 2-1 in the June series in 2018, while England prevailed 22-11 at Twickenham last November. But those results count for nothing — these are different sides and never before have they played with this amount of pressure on them.
The key players: Faf de Klerk and Maro ItojeSouth Africa’s No. 9 Faf de Klerk and England forward Maro Itoje will be central to each of their teams’ gameplans in the Rugby World Cup final. David Rogers/Getty Images
There are eye-catching match-ups all over the field, but for the Springboks, they need the brilliant Faf de Klerk to be on fire. The blonde, floppy-haired, diminutive No. 9 is one of the most ruthless scrum-halves in world rugby with ball in hand, but also has pinpoint accuracy with his box kicks.
He oozes confidence; just look at the way he spins the ball on one finger before scrums or fronted up to Wales lock Jake Ball in the semifinal, despite losing a foot in height.
England scrum-half Ben Youngs has already seen off teams boasting Will Genia and Aaron Smith and will have his eyes on De Klerk but England’s key man in a cast of many will be Maro Itoje.
The second-row put in a performance for the ages against New Zealand where he made 12 tackles, three turnovers and won seven lineouts. The supporters love him — the White Stripes must be looking for royalties as the fans have adopted the first few bars of their hit ‘Seven Nation Army’ for Itoje — but he does so much skulduggery to keep England on the front-foot. He is a disruptive influence in defending mauls and is a menace at pinching lineouts. England’s attacking game is so reliant on a strong set piece and Itoje has established himself as one of the best second-rows in the world.
“He’s a great teammate, he’s one of those that can give you confidence when you’re running out because you know what he can do,” Mako Vunipola said of Itoje. “It’s not that he goes out of his way to make unbelievable plays, he’s in the right position to make those plays and he’s very talented as well. He’s a very good player … he’s not a great singer, he’s not a great dancer but you can’t have everything.”
After a nip-and-tuck first half, England will come through 23-12 to win their second World Cup. Eddie Jones wants his players to go out without any fear, while Rassie Erasmus wants his team to leave nothing on the field. If they are left with regrets, he will see that as failure.
The game will descend into an arm-wrestle of a match at stages, but the likes of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill can help prevent England fall down that rabbit hole. There will be moments of nervousness after the Boks empty their bench but England will end up winning the match in the final quarter to join the class of 2003 in rugby immortality.
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