The Springboks’ relaxed and positive attitude bodes well for an unprecedented test of their mental strength, writes JON CARDINELLI in Tokyo.
Rassie Erasmus hasn’t had time for mind games this week. The six-day turnaround between the semi-final and final has limited the Boks in terms of what they can and cannot do.
The coaches and players have focused on tactical preparations rather than an elaborate media campaign aimed at knocking England off-kilter. The calm and pragmatic attitude exuded by Erasmus and his charges has been difficult for the media to accept given the magnitide of the occasion.
On Tuesday, after Erasmus stated that Cheslin Kolbe was the only change to the match 23 and that the Boks would not veer from their game plan, an English journalist asked the coach if he was bluffing. More than a few foreign reporters have made the journey to the team hotel in recent weeks to see for themselves whether the much-hyped South African culture and sense of unity is genuine.
As someone who has followed the Boks closely for seven weeks, I can vouch for the fact that these players know who they are and how far this team has come over the past two years. At the same time they truly believe that they are good enough to beat England and claim their first World Cup title since 2007.
And yet, on Wednesday I found myself asking Lood de Jager a similar question. The big lock was joking around with Herschel Jantjies at the top table of the media conference. On the other side of the scrumhalf, Beast Mtawarira was laughing from the belly.
The Boks were looking happy and relaxed. Were they doing anything in particular to manage the pressure that has crushed many a potential champion in the past?
De Jager didn’t flinch at the question or take it as a cue to straighten or stiffen up. His demeanour as well as his statement spoke volumes for the team’s mindset.
‘I think there’s only one guy across both the Bok and England squads who has played in a World Cup final before, and that’s Frans Steyn,’ he said with a shrug. ‘For the rest of us it’s new territory.
‘We need to focus on what we can do and be as relaxed as we can. We need to prepare as well as we can and then go out and execute on Saturday.’
Forwards coach Matt Proudfoot spoke about the Boks’ respect for England. At no point, though, did he give the impression that the team is daunted by the challenge.
‘That England-New Zealand semi-final was just a great game to watch,’ Proudfoot said. ‘We just looked at that performance as a team and thought “Wow”.
‘We’re just approaching the final as another footie game. England will be better than they were against New Zealand and we will have to handle them.’
Proudfoot’s praise for the pack – both the starting eight and the ‘bomb squad’ – also highlighted the growth of the team.
‘The guys have matured a great deal. They’ve become a very experienced group that has learned to solve problems on the pitch. Our coaching philosophy has been to empower these guys to handle the situation as it unfolds.
‘It’s a final and either side will favour their own approach. Both teams will be looking to step up and simply do what they do better. That’s certainly how we’ve gone about things this week.’
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