By Max Mathews
- England and South Africa face-off in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama on Saturday
- Eddie Jones’ men looking to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for second time
- Victory for diverse Springboks could unite a still politically split country, with third world crown
YOKOHAMA, JAPAN – On THE biggest stage, can England and Eddie Jones etch their name into sporting history in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final against South Africa in Yokohama?
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Can England climb summit after All Black apex?
After six weeks of often exhaustive action the question in Yokohama on everyone’s lips is who will be crowned 2019 Rugby World Cup winners this weekend. And – from a home nation’s perspective – can England get better?
After a performance widely hailed as one of the greatest English rugby performances of all time – possibly one of the greatest team performances ever – can the champions of 2003 crank that showing up to a new level? Or have they already peaked?
Japan were ramped up to a climactic emotional intensity for their decisive Pool A clash against Scotland. The squad displayed an exceptional spirit and hunger bestowed on them by the world after the tragic events of typhoon Hagibis, which left 86 dead and eight missing, so far. But that level of performance and passion was unsustainable.
South Africa faced a Japan who had already reached the summit of Everest. Arguably, England’s Everest was New Zealand. Saturday is a World Cup final. The combatants in the showpiece final will likely be pushed to play beyond their physical and mental capabilities.
With the spotlight on Eddie Jones that was fixed so pointedly on Steve Hansen’s All Blacks last weekend, the pendulum of expectation has now inexorably swung onto his own charges, and the occasion may hit England hardest. They are no longer underdogs but favourites, and the unimaginable pressure will never be greater.
Retaining a day’s extra rest and one fewer game than South Africa this tournament however, Jones’ men must now go about improving on a once-in-a-lifetime performance. On the flip side, England had a cautionary lap of honour after their semi-final whilst refocusing on the job to come, whilst South Africa were parading round the pitch like they had already won the tournament. Could that mentality prove crucial?
As arguably the man who conquered the All Black spirit, Maro Itoje will look to complete a remarkable sporting journey this weekend and as the lock told BBC Sport, Itoje still believes there are one or two more aces up English sleeves, that he and his teammates can utilise:
“We can still improve by being more engaged, more in the moment. We will just build and build towards the final. We will make sure the guys have the right attitude.”
A Rainbow nation still healing
As the Springboks lifted their first World Cup in 1995 on home soil – firmly in the face of a growing political struggle in South Africa- the iconic images of skipper Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in tandem, still stands today as not only beacons of South African heritage, but those synonymous with sport the world over.
John Smit and Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki also replicated those scenes in 2007 after victory over England, but will captain Siya Kolisi get his chance this weekend also? As his country’s first black captain Kolisi, has the chance to do something far greater than even Pienaar or Smit achieved.
Smith himself is still reverent over his memories of Paris 12 years ago and as he told the BBC, should Kolisi lift the famed golden trophy on Saturday, South Africa sport will hit new heights.
“It was iconic when Francois lifted the World Cup with Madiba [Mandela], and it was amazing to be able to do it myself with Thabo [Mbeki].
But if Siya [Kolisi] touches that trophy on Saturday, I tell you, it will be a far greater moment than 1995. Far greater. It would change the trajectory of our country.”
In 1995, wing Chester Williams was the only black player in the starting XV. In 2007, there were still only two. Six black players started in the semi-final win over Wales. 11 of the 31-strong squad are black. Coach Rassie Erasmus has built a diverse side packed with genuine talent from all walks of life, where every single player is there on merit and merit alone, as a still split Rainbow nation attempts to finally sew together a once fractured country.
The President of Zwide United Rugby Club Freddie Makoki – who played alongside Kolisi’s father and grandfather and watched the young man grow up, also told of what winning the ultimate prize would mean.
“When the Springboks won in 1995, it brought South Africa together. But this would be more, we’d have a lot more black players playing rugby again. I’m telling you! It will be more, it will be more.
A black president and black captain, from a small town on the Eastern Cape, winning the World Cup? That can save our country.”
England are unchanged for the first time this tournament, with Jones – in his 50th game in charge – clearly not wanting to change a successful formula. The only change to the squad comes through Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer, who replaces the injured Willi Heinz on the bench.
Similarly, South Africa have made just one change with live-wire Cheslin Kolbe coming in for S’busiso Nkosi on the right wing. Nkosi drops out of the squad altogether, with the bench remaining the same.
England will know what to expect with the Springboks; A big scrum, powerful rolling mauls, albeit unlikely to be as effective against England as they were against Wales and a clever kicking game from their half-backs. Above all, Erasmus’ side possess a monstrous, brutal, unforgiving, frenzied and almost hysterical physicality.
They have a rockstar back three in former Wasps full-back Willie Le Roux, one of the top Test try-scorers this year in Makazole Mapimpi and, of course, the little magician Kolbe, back in the side after missing the Wales semi with injury.
Don’t get it twisted. South Africa will be a tough mountain to climb in England are to reach the summit of world rugby.
‘Mini Hercules’ Faf de Klerk at scrum-half sets their tempo and – despite often being the smallest player on the pitch – their defensive tone. A huge one-on-one tackle on Billy Vunipola in the Autumn International series victory over England in 2018 defined that serial in the same way James Haskell’s percussive hit on David Pocock did in England’s win over Australia.
Opposite number Ben Youngs, who flattered to deceive at times during the semi-final, and whose replacement Spencer has just three caps, leaves the potential for the latter being thrown onto the pitch on the biggest stage of them all. Expect both teams to have plans for the opposition nines.
Duane Vermeulen is probably the best number eight in the world, a title Jones says could be bestowed on Billy Vunipola if he fulfils his potential. Vunipola has never beaten Vermeulen in Test rugby, and was outplayed by him during England’s series defeat last year.
For England, Tom Curry, a strong contender Man of the Match against New Zealand – possibly MVP in every game he’s played at this tournament – brings his relentless physicality, athleticism and bravery through clear as day, and his gargantuan defence could lay the platform for England’s victory this weekend.
His opposite man, Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi, hasn’t quite hit the heights so far this tournament, but in his 50th test and 20th as captain in Yokohama, now would be a great time for him to return to his powers and lead his country to an historic triumph.
England: Daly; Watson, Tuilagi, Farrell (c), May; Ford, Youngs; M Vunipola, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Lawes, Curry, Underhill, B Vunipola.
Replacements: Cowan-Dickie, Marler, Cole, Kruis, Wilson, Spencer, Slade, Joseph.
South Africa: Le Roux; Kolbe, Am, De Allende, Mapimpi; Pollard, De Klerk; Mtawarira, Mbonambi, Malherbe, Etzebeth, De Jager, Kolisi (c), Du Toit, Vermeulen.
Replacements: Marx, Kitshoff, Koch, Snyman, Mostert, Louw, H Jantjies, Steyn.
England face South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final on Saturday 2 November at 9am UK time in Yokohama, Japan.
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