In the next instalment of our flashback series, JON CARDINELLI remembers the quiet confidence of the Springboks in the lead-up to one of the greatest climaxes in sporting history.
The pool fixture between New Zealand and South Africa panned out as expected, with the All Blacks winning 23-13 at the Yokohama Stadium. That said, there was a feeling in the media contingent that the game was a precursor to the decider itself.
‘See you boys in the final,’ a couple of Kiwi journalists chirped as they left the media centre after the game. It was well after midnight by the time the South African writers had closed their laptops and raced to the station in an attempt to catch the last train back to Tokyo.
Most of us, through a series of reports and analyses, agreed that the game effectively highlighted the Boks’ shortcomings as well as their status as dark horses for the title.
More than a month later, both sets of journalists wore expressions of disbelief as the All Blacks bombed out of the tournament and the Boks advanced on the back of a narrow yet convincing win over Wales.
As someone who had followed South Africa closely through their darkest days in 2016 and 2017, I couldn’t quite believe the turnaround. Suddenly the Boks were 80 minutes away from being crowned world champions.
Much of the global rugby community, of course, refused to believe in the possibility. Eddie Jones’ England were already being talked up as the greatest team to have played the sport after their – admittedly magnificent – semi-final win against the All Blacks.
To be honest, I travelled to Japan last year expecting the Boks to battle bravely and bow out in the semi-finals. When I saw them play against the All Blacks in the Pool B opener, I was convinced that they needed a year or two to reach their potential.
And yet, by the time the Boks beat Japan in the quarter-finals, I had started to understand what was at play behind the scenes.
One could have forgiven Rassie Erasmus for using the 2019 tournament as a springboard for the 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions and the 2023 World Cup. When you spoke to Erasmus and his coaches in Japan, however, you got the feeling that every effort was being made to win the 2019 World Cup.
You spend a lot of time with the coaches and players when you’re on tour. Often you see them when you’re working in a hotel lobby. Occasionally you bump into them when you’re exploring national landmarks or wandering around town.
Most are willing to chat over a coffee, even if there is a World Cup at stake.
‘We’re quietly optimistic,’ one member of the management told me in the lobby of the Tokyo Bay Hotel. As the World Cup final week wore on, the underdog theme persisted.
‘The England coaching staff don’t rate us,’ one of the South African coaches told me.
I was very surprised to hear that. Eddie Jones paid the South African coaches the ultimate compliment when he dispensed with the mind games in the lead-up to the final. The British media, on the other hand, was convinced that England were a shoo-in for the title.
‘We’ll win if we play to our full potential,’ Erasmus told a group of us a few days before the final. It was a statement that indicated that the Boks would stick to the plan that had earned them a place in the decider.
When I bumped into the players during the week, they appeared genuinely relaxed and quietly confident. Maybe it was easier for them knowing that they were underdogs. All the pressure was off.
Except that wasn’t quite true. As the likes of Beast Mtawarira reminded us ahead of the final, the Boks were playing for more than themselves.
Siya Kolisi echoed these sentiments at the captain’s media briefing on the eve of the final. A British journalist actually stressed the point when he asked one of the England players a question that Friday. The Boks had so much going for them in terms of extra motivation. How could England counter that?
Indeed, having witnessed everything I had in the preceding six weeks – and having pushed the events of 2016 an 2017 to one side – I picked the Boks to beat England in the final. I shared Warren Gatland’s view that England had spent much of their energy in the big performance against the All Blacks.
I decided to catch an early train to Shin-Yokohama and to engage with a few fans before meeting up with colleagues Gavin Rich and Gareth Jenkinson for our traditional pre-game beer. The England fans gathered in the streets were belting out ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. One fan I accosted told me that the English would put 40 points past the Boks and that the South Africans would not score a try.
At World Cups, the powers that be tend to allocate seats according to the team you are following. I was seated next to the other South African journalists, and for once they were particularly vocal and emotional about the performance and result.
For me, the experience of watching the final was surreal. When I saw the Boks singing the national anthem, I knew England were in trouble.
Mtawarira was the man that moved me. The look in the Beast’s eyes highlighted the team’s focus and ambition.
The Bok forwards destroyed England at the scrum. Some of the players have subsequently told me that they were lucky that Kyle Sinckler was injured in the initial stages. I was there, however, and I agree with Bongi Mbonambi’s assessment. The Boks were on top at the set piece even before Sinckler was taken off.
‘Rassie fooled us all,’ an English journo quipped when he saw me at the post-match media conference. I didn’t understand what he was talking about it. He proceeded to tell me that the Boks had played a conservative brand of rugby for the entire tournament and then employed an expansive approach in the final.
He was hugely impressed, but I had to tell him that I saw things differently. The Boks backed themselves at the set pieces and collisions in the final, and once they had established dominance, they unleashed their outside backs.
The decision-making by the likes of Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi, of course, was worth all the superlatives. Cheslin Kolbe appeared to make a series of statements when he bypassed Owen Farrell’s swinging arm and dotted down for the game-clinching try.
One powerful moment followed another in the aftermath. Kolisi and his team rose as one to launch ‘Bill’ into the sky. Erasmus and Kolisi explained to a room packed with international reporters what the victory meant to South Africa as a whole.
Later, when a much smaller group of journalists met for the after party at the Bok team hotel, Erasmus and others told us that the World Cup victory was only the beginning for South African rugby.
I’ve been fortunate to witness many excellent Test matches during my career as a writer and, make no mistake, that tactical performance by the Boks in the 2019 World Cup final is at the very top.
What made the game truly memorable for me, of course, was the manner in which Erasmus pulled South African rugby back from the brink and transformed the group into a team that could win as well as inspire a diverse and complicated nation.
The class of 2019 and what it achieved can never be hyped enough.
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