DURBAN – In eight previous World Cup finals there had been nothing remotely like it … I’m talking about the jaw-dropping, eyebrow-raising magnificence of the Springbok pack that blew Eddie Jones’ cocky England to smithereens, sweeping the South Africans to a 20-point winning margin, the second biggest ever in a final.
Just a week before, the world had marvelled at how England had dismantled New Zealand with a power game that their cock-a-hoop media described as the most complete England performance ever. Very few folk outside of South Africa gave the Boks a chance, and almost none at all would have predicted such an emphatic conquest. Never had a team lost a Pool game and gone on to win the Cup.
But rugby remains an incredibly simple game. The essence of it has not changed in 150 years, and that is if you control possession by dominating the opposition in the set scrums, the line-outs, the restarts, plus you boss the breakdown battle, you control the game’s destiny. When the two packs of forwards went down for the very first scrum, just 90 seconds into the game, and the green phalanx inched relentlessly forward, there was a collective roar across South Africa, and how Eddie’s heart must have sunk.
This was not going to be the forward arm wrestle of previous finals. And it got worse for the England pack, with Jerome Garces repeatedly blowing them for scrum infringements when they could not deal with the destructive force powering at them, and Pollard duly nailed the penalty goals. But if the pack is to quite rightly praised to the rafters, and the finishing of Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe celebrated long and lustily, there was another area of the Springbok game that trumped all else in securing their magnificent win.
And that was a seven-minute period not long after half-time when England laid siege to the Bok line, sensing they could take the game by the throat. Wave after Red Rose wave foundered on the Springbok rock. Almost every England player flung himself at the line and every single one was repulsed. A few, in fact, managed to get over the line but before the ball could be grounded they were ferociously repelled.
Owen Farrell eventually settled for three points and the fact that it was not seven for all of that effort was a vital psychological victory for the Boks. The England heads went down, the SA chests puffed out, and for me that was the winning of the game.
The Boks to a man were exceptional but it would be churlish not to give praise where it is due in the case of fullback Willie le Roux. Seldom has a Springbok player been so vilified and understandably so given his wavering form in the tournament, but when it counted he came to the party. He was outstanding under the high ball and when he came in at first receiver he directed traffic commandingly. Rassie Erasmus kept faith with the veteran and he came good when it mattered.
Faf de Klerk has also been the butt of social media jokes but he had the last laugh yesterday with a performance that brought to mind Jones’ description of the scrumhalf last year: “a painful little buzz saw.”