TOKYO, Japan, Nov 1 – England face the daunting task of trying to match or even improve upon their stunning win over New Zealand when they face South Africa in the World Cup final.
Eddie Jones’s men will head into Saturday’s showpiece in Yokohama as favourites after a superb 19-7 semi-final win ended the All Blacks’ bid for a third successive world title.
But South Africa are probably one of the few sides capable of repelling England in their current form, even if there was nothing pretty about the Springboks’ grinding 16-13 semi-final win over Wales.
England, whose starting XV is unchanged, appear to have the more balanced side.
A sound scrum and and lineout featuring the athletic Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje is supported by a back row where number eight Billy Vunipola is alongside “kamikaze kid” flankers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, who have been superb at the breakdown in Japan.
Meanwhile dual playmakers George Ford and captain Owen Farrell will look to dictate terms and unleash a backline where talented fullback Elliot Daly and wings Jonny May and Anthony Watson provide a cutting edge.
From the moment Eddie Jones took over as England coach following the team’s woeful first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 World Cup, he has insisted the aim was to be crowned champions in Japan.
That they are now so close to realising that ambition is a testament to the Australian, who was in charge of his native Wallabies when they lost the 2003 World Cup final thanks to England great Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the closing seconds of extra-time.
He was also a consultant to the Springboks side that beat England in the 2007 final.
Victory on Saturday would not only see England lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time, it would mean they had completed the unprecedented feat of beating the three southern hemisphere rugby powers in successive weeks following a 40-16 quarter-final victory over Australia.
– ‘Power style’ –
“I wanted to develop a power style as the England have tough, big players,” said Jones, who promised his side would “play with no fear”.
“It suited us to play a power style of rugby and we will be tested on Saturday as we are playing against the other most powerful team in the world.”
For all their immense strength, which includes a ‘bomb squad’ of six forwards on the bench, South Africa do not lack finesse. The return of wing Cheslin Kolbe from injury, the only change to the side that beat the Welsh, adds variety to their game.
But the pack, backed up by the kicking of half-backs Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard, will look to create pressure that leads to penalty opportunities for goal-kicker Pollard, as happened against Wales.
No team has won a World Cup after losing a pool match, as the Springboks did in their tournament opener against New Zealand.
But South Africa, bidding to be crowned champions for a third time, have yet to lose a World Cup final with the Springboks beating the All Blacks on home soil in the climax of the 1995 edition.
South Africa finished third at the last World Cup after suffering a pool-stage shock defeat by a Japan side coached by Jones –the biggest upset in the tournament’s history.
Their form then dipped alarmingly, however, with the Springboks losing eight of 12 Tests in 2016.
But coach Rassie Erasmus has overseen a dramatic improvement since taking charge two years ago, with a multi-racial side captained by Siya Kolisi — the Springboks’ first black skipper — having suffered just one defeat in 11 Tests this year.
“We may not be favourites but these players will leave nothing in the tank,” said Erasmus. “We know how the wins in 1995 and 2007 lifted the country –- even if it was momentarily.
“We want to give South Africa that experience once again.”