England favourites? Boks may be 'too strong' in World Cup final
Who'll win? It's ‘100% 50/50’, says Rassie Erasmus
England are clearly the team smelling like roses ahead of Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final against SA in Yokohama.
It is proving somewhat of a thorn in Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’s side that they are considered such firm favourites.
Not that he minds the underdogs’ tag, but Erasmus sees no clear favourite.
“It is 100% 50/50,” he said a little clumsily this week at the team’s Tokyo Bay Hotel.
Erasmus may have a point. Sure, England are the team of the moment after their dismantling of the All Blacks last week. The Boks, though, have steadily built themselves not just into a team of substance but one to be reckoned with this year.
They’ve lost just one of 11 matches this year and have become one of international rugby’s hard-to-beat outfits.
Under Eddie Jones, England have become a team of fast starters but they are up against administers of slow poison and pain. England may be fast out of the blocks but they face a team proofed for knockout, and indeed, finals rugby.
By fastidiously sticking to a six/two split on the bench the Boks have the forwards, in particular redoubtable tight forwards, to relentlessly come at the opposition.
The value of experienced props has been glaringly illustrated at this World Cup. New Zealand arrived with a shortfall in caps and England marvellously seized the moment by applying the squeeze in the semifinal.
The Bok scrum, apart from a few iffy moments against the All Blacks in Yokohama, has been operationally sound, while their lineout has been a source of deep comfort, winning all but one of their 63 feeds in the competition. Lineouts have produced several telling tries in World Cup finals over the years.
The Bok defence has leaked only four tries the entire competition, they have a tried and tested kicking game and they have sharpshooters in their back division who can potentially deliver a decisive blow from the kicking tee or otherwise.
Those are all areas carefully honed by Erasmus and his coaching staff and, while the Boks are primed, they are not without potential areas of weakness.
The Boks could be more ruthless in attack, a character flaw that becomes accentuated when the margins are tight. Also, they are not as assertive on the deck as England, who have Sam Underhill and Tom Curry as chief disruptors, while in Billy Vunipola they have a wrecking-ball carrier.
The Boks are a little more opaque when it comes to that discipline. They spread the workload, relying more on making dominant hits and benefiting from the arrival of the cavalry.
Those collisions are likely to be ferocious and it will invite the close scrutiny of referee Monsieur Jérome Garcès. That, of course, brings a player like Handré Pollard sharply into focus.
“I love it,” said Pollard about taking pressure kicks. “That’s why you train, that’s why you put in the hours.
“If you imagine being a little boy in the backyard, thinking to yourself, ‘This kick is in the World Cup final’, and all those scenarios. You’ve basically been preparing your whole life for it.”
If the teams cannot be separated deep into the match it may well come down to who can drop the killer blow.
You’ve basically been preparing your whole life for it.Handré Pollard
“It’s no secret that finals have been decided with drop goals and penalty kicks. But you are not going to put too much thought into that, because you just trust your process,” Pollard said.
“I know my limits, I know where I can go back to, which angles I can take and shouldn’t take. If I don’t feel comfortable, I won’t be taking the kick. I don’t want to be forcing it.
“We’ve got a great pack of forwards who could put some pressure on them come set-piece time.
“If you feel comfortable, you’ve got to take a shot at it, because opportunities are going to be few and far apart. I don’t know how far back – we’ll see how the wind blows tomorrow and maybe I will adjust it a little come game day.”
Despite their underdogs’ tag Pollard and the Boks appear confident. Most of the hype created around England has been, as you’d expect, English inspired.
Turn to a local here in Japan, however, and you may get a more objective view. When you are asked, “where you from?”, by a local, your reply is met by a smile and a shaking head: “Too strong, too strong.”
England - Elliot Daly; Anthony Watson; Manu Tuilagi; Owen Farrell (captain); Jonny May; George Ford; Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola; Sam Underhill; Tom Curry; Courtney Lawes; Maro Itoje; Kyle Sinckler; Jamie George; Mako Vunipola. Substitutes: Luke Cowan-Dickie; Joe Marler; Dan Cole; George Kruis; Mark Wilson; Ben Spencer; Henry Slade; Jonathan Joseph. Coach: Eddie Jones.
SA – Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe; Lukhanyo Am; Damian de Allende; Makazole Mapimpi; Handre Pollard; Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen; Pieter-Steph du Toit; Siya Kolisi (captain); Lood de Jager; Eben Etzebeth; Frans Malherbe; Bongi Mbonambi; Tendai Mtawarira. Substitutes: Malcolm Marx; Steven Kitshoff; Vincent Koch; RG Snyman; Franco Mostert; Francois Louw; Herschel Jantjies; Frans Steyn. Coach: Rassie Erasmus.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France).
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France) and Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand).
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand).
Kickoff: 6pm (Japan); 11am (SA time)