The Springboks must be both measured and fearless as they enter this Saturday’s World Cup final as underdogs against England, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
At the start of last week, England coach Eddie Jones stopped just short of bowing and waving at his engrossed audience following a colourful media conference in the buildup to a semi-final ambush of the All Blacks.
The ultimate raconteur, Jones challenged the journalists present to raise their hands if they thought England could beat the All Blacks. Before anyone really had a chance to respond, Jones shot back, ‘You see, no one thinks we can win.’
The animated Jones went on to highlight how England were absolute underdogs, and that they’d be more than happy no matter what happened in their semi-final against the All Blacks.
It wasn’t an unusual tactic. Jones is a master at finding ways to take pressure off his players, while he happily banked the underdog tag before taking on the All Blacks. In private, Jones and his team plotted a wily response to the haka that they hoped would throw New Zealand off their game, and then duly went about dismantling the former world champs to the tune of 19-7.
Well, whatever tricks Eddie might have up his sleeve this week (and you can bet that there will be a few), the one thing he cannot do is pretend that England aren’t the out-and-out favourites.
This past weekend’s result catapulted England to top spot in the world rankings, while their playoff wins over the Wallabies and All Blacks showcased a side that boasts a truly complete all-round game.
By contrast, the Boks lost their opening game to New Zealand. They soared through the remainder of the pool phase, but endured a fright in the first half against Japan, while only just edging past Wales in the semi-final. They have really yet to produce their perfect performance, but that’s all fine and well.
One way or another, the Springboks have found a way to succeed, and now find themselves in their first final since 2007. The only difference is that 12 years later, it’s England rather than South Africa who will be regarded as the favoured team.
And that should suit the Boks just fine.
In some respects, the Springboks really have nothing to lose this Saturday. In just reaching the final, they have earned redemption and restored pride in the Bok brand that was down in the doldrums just 18 months ago.
The Boks have already exceeded many expectations, and the foundation has been laid for long-term success. Consider for a moment that a considerable core of this current 31-man squad are young enough to be heavily involved throughout the next four-year cycle to the 2023 World Cup.
With all that in mind, the Springboks have to exhibit a much-needed sense of bravery and bravado heading into the final. Whereas Wales had little to offer on the counter-attack when the Boks regularly kicked on them in the semi-final, England have a dangerous back three who can do serious damage if afforded the time and space.
At the end of the day, the Boks are never going to deviate too drastically from their strengths that have worked so well for them: rabid defence, monstrous mauls and a prolific kicking game. But they also need to offer more.
In the lead-up to the Springboks’ only try against Wales, a noticeable influencing factor was the manner in which Handre Pollard twice took the ball flat and attacked the gainline with purpose.
The Boks desperately need playmakers such as Pollard, Faf de Klerk and yes, Willie le Roux, to back themselves to take control of proceedings and keep England guessing with an approach that is not only reliant on extensive kicking coupled with brutal defence.
When there are opportunities for the Springboks to counter-attack, and time and space on the ball, they have to ensure their decision-making and execution match the occasion of a grand finale.
Ultimately, they have little to lose, and everything to gain.
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