While England are the massive favourites to lift the World Cup trophy, they have to be careful not to underestimate a Springbok team who are due a big performance, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
The bookies have shortened the odds on the Springboks winning the World Cup, but the South Africans remain the big underdogs ahead of Saturday’s final at the Yokohama Stadium.
England’s scintillating performances against Australia in the quarter-final and the All Blacks in the semi have earned them the favourites tag. They have played some awesome rugby, combining intelligence, skill and physicality in defence and the breakdown.
The Boks, on the other hand, have somehow found a way to grind out victories, while they also found themselves on the ‘easier’ side of the draw, having played Japan in the quarter-finals and a misfiring Wales team in the semis.
The teams met four times in 2018, with the Boks winning the three-Test series in South Africa 2-1 – Rassie Erasmus’ first assignment as coach – while their November fixture ended in controversial circumstances, when the referee and the TMO failed to penalise England flyhalf Owen Farrell for a no-arms tackle that would have given the Boks the chance to kick a match-winning penalty.
England are certainly a much-improved side after going on a five-match streak without a win before getting over the line in the last Test of that 2018 series against the Boks at a wet Newlands. They seem to be peaking at the right time, having put in arguably the performance of the tournament to down the defending champions last weekend.
England dominated New Zealand in areas where they are normally king. They tackled and rucked the All Blacks into oblivion, while they disrupted the All Black lineout and gained momentum by winning their own. They also managed to get over the advantage line on attack, and managed to get the sort of momentum that forced the All Blacks into mistakes.
The Boks, though, haven’t got out of third gear yet. They have relied on a massive defence and individual brilliance to see them through. Since losing to the All Blacks in their opening match, they have beaten Namibia, Italy, Canada, Japan and Wales to secure a place in the final.
Besides their awesome pack of forwards, and desperate yet brutal defence, they haven’t really kicked well while their attack has been almost non-existent. Their normal creative spark, fullback Willie le Roux, is horribly out of form and flyhalf Handre Pollard hasn’t been able to put his own stamp on the game, because they generally play off scrumhalf Faf de Klerk.
But could this be the game when the Boks actually change into a higher gear in all aspects of their game? In a World Cup final?
They are not going to digress from their conservative way of playing. They will still kick a lot. But they need to be more dynamic and purposeful when they have an opportunity to score. They need to be able to put England under pressure with ball in hand when it’s on to do so.
Having said that, England have played two teams who love to carry the ball. They got their energy and momentum from tackling the Wallabies and All Blacks back, before counter-rucking strongly.
That won’t happen against South Africa. The Boks won’t run the ball back. Their forwards won’t be dominated at set-piece time. So now they have to find a way of generating momentum and energy. If they decide to do that with ball in hand, they will play into the Boks’ hands and will be nailed.
So, this final is hardly cut and dry. England are the favourites, but the Boks are due a big performance. Saturday provides the biggest stage of them all to deliver it.
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