If you are a Springbok supporter and you watched England comprehensively outplay the mighty All Blacks on Saturday, you might be thinking … how on earth can we beat them? In fact, my feeling after the game was that I would actually rather the Boks were playing the All Blacks in the final than England. They were that good.
Of course we still had the difficult Welsh to overcome … but while there were some nerves, there was no fear.
The English in current form on the other hand are a different story. They appear to have no weaknesses – an astute coach and assistant coach (Eddie Jones, John Mitchell), a strong pack, a balanced and energetic loose trio, an excellent scrum half in Ben Youngs, kicking options from George Ford and Owen Farrell from the 10-12 axis, pace and energy in the back three. They also seem to have added that crucial ingredient, mental steel, into their already potent mix. Lesser teams would have been flustered by a few “iffy” decisions that went against them at crucial times, yet England remained focussed throughout. What more could you want from a team? They certainly have the look of champions.
Now that I have talked the opposition up, let’s take a look at how the Boks can possibly beat them.
Firstly, the underdog tag is an advantage. Jones played it perfectly in piling the pressure on NZ by saying that England had nothing to lose and the ABs everything to lose. He has used that card effectively in the past when coaching Japan. He doesn’t have that ace up his sleeve this time round as the bookies have England to win by 3 points at this stage. Rassie will know that win or lose the team will go home with their heads held high – he will use that to ease the pressure while at the same time gearing his charges up for one last assault.
Secondly, the England performance you saw on Saturday does not guarantee a complete replication next Saturday. We saw how the All Blacks were lauded after destroying Ireland the week before, perhaps got lured into a false sense of security against England and then failed to show up. It’s very difficult to produce the perfect performance back-to-back in international rugby.
Thirdly, the Springboks won’t give England the time and space that the All Blacks did. The All Blacks mistakenly thought that their attacking game would be too much for England and failed to put enough focus on their rush defence and particularly the breakdown. This gave England the time and quality ball to play their game. The ABs made a major error in selecting Scott Barrett at flank instead of Sam Cane. They thought the extra bulk would help nullify England’s powerful pack but it instead allowed England’s “kamikaze kids” in Sam Underhill and Tom Curry to dominate the loose. The Boks will be a lot more competitive at the breakdown than NZ was.
I think Rassie surprises the English with a slightly (very slightly!) more varied game at times. The general game plan will be the similar but England and Jones will be expecting the exact same strategy as was deployed vs Japan and Wales. Rassie has already said that he will be sticking with more of the same, “I don’t think the final will be won by a very expansive game plan with wonderful tries. It might be and I might be wrong, but I think we’ll go out and grind it out.”
Rassie is a very astute coach – he would not be telegraphing exactly what the Boks are going to do to the opposition this early. I am not suggesting the game plan will be a major deviation from the current one but I think he will add in a few surprises to keep England on their toes. He will have noted how our sole attempt in the second half to run at the Welsh ultimately yielded a try and some important points – this against one of the best defences in world rugby.
The Bok bench – the “bomb squad” – have the edge on England’s bench and have been a significant contributor throughout the tournament. They certainly helped the Boks get over the line against Wales. If SA can keep the score close to about the 55th minute or so and then unleash the “bomb squad”, England will be under a lot of pressure.
The Springboks have been solid if unspectacular in their progression to the final. While I don’t think England can improve on what they delivered against the All Blacks, there is plenty of upside for the Boks if they can get it right. It’s fair to say that, despite some individual brilliance from the likes of Cheslin Kolbe and Damian de Allende, the backline hasn’t quite clicked yet. If they could find their rhythm in the final to match what the pack is delivering – England could be in for one hell of a game!
If all that fails, esteemed writer Chris Moerdyk has come up with a brilliant and foolproof strategy … before every scrum or line out just yell “BREXIT!” … that should get every English player properly rattled!