Now we’ve had a few days to reflect on that narrowest of victories against England, you have to ask yourself this question. Was it a stroke of genius to see the Springboks use the bench like they did, or was it a flawed selection strategy? Fans will always debate the rights and wrongs of team selection but what it does show you is how there is the finest of margins in elite-level Test rugby. You can go from zero to hero and back in the blink of a second.
There were a lot of relieved faces after that semi-final and you have to give credit to Steve Borthwick for perfecting that singular gameplan and coming within 156 seconds of reaching the World Cup final, against all the odds. England proved that with the Saracens players and Saracens style, there is a way to beat the Springboks. One area they’ll need to improve in is scoring tries. In six World Cup games against South Africa, England have scored one try, in Perth in 2003. That’s why they haven’t lifted the Webb Ellis Cup more often.
Reading between the lines, however, it looks like there’s a massive push by the players to back their coach for the next four years, certainly now they can see some progress. Felix Jones is said to be on his way and they have some gifted young players so there are reasons for optimism. Sir Clive Woodward said it was a performance that could prove a bit of a watershed moment for English rugby. Previously, he said England had lost the respect of their fans, so hopefully it is a turning point for them because world rugby needs a healthy England side.
As for this weekend’s selection, how could it not raise an eyebrow? It’s incredible, they pick four scrum-halves for the World Cup and go with one nine for the final – you couldn’t make it up. In one game, they’ve gone from Faf warming the bench for 42 minutes to starting him in a World Cup final with no backup. Most people will be left scratching their heads about the rationale.
Whether it’s Kurt-Lee (Arendse), Cheslin (Kolbe), or Kwagga (Smith), the reality is you don’t play a World Cup final without a backup No 9. Nick Mallett tried that in 2009, when he moved Mauro Bergamasco, and it was a total disaster. History tells us that World Cup finals can go to injury-time, so if Faf has to play 100 minutes, that’s asking a hell of a lot from him. If you move a wing there, it means the outside backs also have to play 100 minutes. We also know Damian Willemse can cover 10 and 12 but it leaves them very thin in the backline if there are injuries. It is a gamble they didn’t need to make.
Granted, if you’re not going to play any attacking rugby, you’re only going to defend, kick your own ball and use your forward dominance, you don’t need lots of backline players on the bench. The style you want to play actually dictates the personnel you have on the bench. The All Blacks or Ireland could never get away with selecting one backline player on the bench. It just would not happen due to the amount of phases they go through ball-in-hand. It’s like choreographing a play or a dance, losing your leading man and expecting the play will have the same impact.
In the crudest of terms, Rassie and Jacques are basically saying, ‘we’re coming to f**k you up’, which is what they’ve continually said on their rugby shows and on social media from day one. The only red flag fans will have been they used that strategy against Ireland, and it didn’t quite come off.
It makes you wonder. I saw Jacques (Nienaber) saying the entire squad was on the same page and players had put aside individual gain for their country, but you’d be surprised if everyone was smiling at half-time when South Africa were 15-6 down. You would imagine it was pretty tense, emotions were running high and not every player was feeling the love. If South Africa end up not winning this final, not every player will come out singing the management’s praises, but in all honesty, I’m not sure that will overly concern Rassie.
It’s the same with the furore over Bongi (Mbonambi) and Tom Curry. They’ll have carried on as if it’s business as usual, whereas some coaches would have panicked and thought about a Plan B and Plan C. Rassie is very sure of himself, and his message is nothing if not direct. It’s, ‘we’re coming for you, we’ve fully loaded, and you are going to have to front up if you’re going to stop us’. His team-talk will be about not taking a backward step and throwing the kitchen sink at the All Blacks.
As for New Zealand, they’ve used this World Cup as a training camp for the Tests that matter. Since they lost to France on the opening night, they’ve worked under the hood, and built towards the classic with Ireland before surgically dismantling Argentina in the semi-final. Remember it is just over two months on from their 35-7 thrashing at the hands the Springboks, but on Saturday they’ll be an entirely different proposition. People will say Los Pumas were poor, but they don’t often lose by 40 points in Rugby Championship games. It shows how far they’ve kicked on in a relatively short timeframe – they’ve won 16 out of their last 18 Tests, which is pretty formidable form.
The challenge for the Springboks is starving the All Blacks’ supremely talented back three; Mark Tele’a, Will Jordan and Beauden Barrett of ball, whereas Ian Foster’s biggest challenge is motivating his forward pack to play with as much aggression, passion and emotion as they can to do the opposite. I don’t expect them to dominate the Boks but if they can match them phase for phase, they have a chance to win the game, there’s no doubt about that.
No matter how good the Springbok defence is, you’d expect the All Blacks to score tries – they’ve scored 47 at this World Cup already. They’ve faced weak opposition in Uruguay, Namibia and Italy but they are very clinical and dangerous. They’re like Real Madrid in the Champions League – so the Boks will have to keep the scoreboard ticking over to keep them at arm’s length.
Another variable is the weather and they’re expecting rain which probably suits the All Blacks more.
Picking a winner is such a tough call – it’s the flick of a coin. For the first time, two sides who have lost a game have made the final. The Boks have been riding their luck, beating France and England, the latter after being nine points down with 12 minutes to go.
It will be interesting to see which side the French fans will get behind but there are enough subplots to make this a thriller. They’ve only faced each other once before in a World Cup final in 1995 and that went to extra-time. The Boks have also never lost a final, and both sides will be looking to lift the trophy for a record fourth time. It’s crazy because the last time someone other than New Zealand or South Africa won a final was in 2003. That was England and it’s up to other sides to be better than those two heavyweights. They’ve set the standards that everyone aspires to and I cannot wait for the whistle to go.