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Destiny’s Boks

November 8, 2019

‘Destiny’ is a funny word. A word that most people writing about sporting events don’t use unless they can help it. But there are very few alternatives in the thesaurus to describe South Africa’s third RWC triumph in as many finals appearances. Given their dismal performances soon after the semi-final showing in the 2015 edition, Rassie Erasmus’ climb was much higher than Table Mountain. But make the climb he did, despite what he euphemistically described as ‘challenges’ along the way. It was a journey that Erasmus himself had to describe as being a journey of ‘destiny’.

While it may have been destined for the Webb-Ellis trophy to be lifted by Siya Kolisi, in the same way Cinderella’s slipper was destined to fit only her foot, that is where the fairy-tale element of this campaign ended. Erasmus set in motion a chain of events that were planned with as much rational, calculating, cleverness as a only a man surrounded with external pressures can find. The daily adversity of selection fitting political criteria, managing dressing room and board room tensions and ensuring that his punt on captaincy doesn’t back fire made this campaign everything but just rugby, for the Erasmus. When compared to Eddie Jones, Steve Hansen or Warren Gatland, whose main worries are injuries, we can see why Erasmus didn’t overthink the rugby part as some others may have had the privilege of doing.

In lifting the cup, South Africa became the only team in nine editions of the RWC to lose a pool game and still win. After that initial loss on the second day of the tournament in Yokohama, the South Africans didn’t seem too perturbed. “We’re not going to mope around, we have the rest of the World Cup to go” said Francois Louw, while Aaron Smith said “That game was like a final, really exciting”. The marathoner’s approach outshone the sprinter’s fast start.

For England to win a World Cup they would conceivably have to beat Argentina, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in consecutive weeks. For South Africa, they would have to beat the minnows, Japan and Wales. Losing that first game was a blessing in disguise, or a blessing by design. New Zealand had clearly placed more emphasis on the result in that game than South Africa, and that was because Erasmus was playing the long con. Allow England and New Zealand to knock each other out, and take on the battered winner.

The only time South Africa were really tested was against Japan. Although the 26-3 scoreline suggests Wales (19-16) ran them closer, it was pretty obvious that South Africa were unsettled by the speed of the Japanese game. At 5-3 at half time, the Boks had to stop playing to Japan’s pace and start dominating the game on their own terms. That they did, and scored 3 times. Although Wales went toe to toe with the eventual World Champions, Pollard and co., never looked like they were in danger of losing that game. The 75th minute penalty to take and keep the lead seemed almost expected and the ‘finishers’ comprising the likes of Louw, Koch, Kitschoff and Snyman, did their job. Professional international teams know how and when they can win significant moments. It is the same mindset with which MS Dhoni let’s the pressure build safe in the knowledge that he’s picked his bowler. South Africa were always holding back.

England lost the final before they turned up at the ground. Again, it is impossible to discount destiny. Japan is up there in the clockwork rankings with Switzerland. If the team bus gets delayed by twenty minutes, that is a monumental cock-up by Japanese standards, where 3 minute train delays are considered ‘significant’. Given how match day protocols are detailed to the utmost precision, a 20 minute delay upsets the players’ pre-match routines. This has an enormous intangible negative effect on the players’ psyche as Owen Farrell’s body language showed at the toss. It would have meant that he was unable to practice as many kicks, George as many line out throws and the pack fewer line outs. The consequences told.

Couple that with Kyle Synckler being taken out by friendly fire in the first two minutes of the game, and England suffered the same psychological blow they inflicted on New Zealand at about the same time in the match. Cascading on top of that was a mentally unprepared Dan Cole, who would have been happy to do a job later in the game, being brought on against a fresh Mtawarira. The resulting decimation in the scrum was a challenge more powerful than the most terrifying of hakas. Every forward in that England scrum knew that it was going to be a long evening. Never has ‘upfront dominance’ been so resoundingly expressed at this level. The rattled Englishmen, who had New Zealand’s physical capitulation under their belts, could not believe the monsters that they confronted now. And this was not – as Jones described – their ‘best team’. That was when Marx came on later.

Even though England found themselves at parity on the scoreboard at the quarter mark, they had already conceded in their heads. The body was willing, but the spirit was beaten. The death knell came when Garces – who escaped scrutiny as a result of the Springbok’s dominance – disputably disallowed Itoje a steal and ruled a knock on in favour of South Africa, when Itoje was visibly thwarted by the Springbok player holding onto the ball. The man of the match from the semi-final was visibly upset and ended up not winning, or stealing, even a single line out on the day.

Sometimes, as Eddie Jones was quick to point out “it’s not your day”. This was a game England conceded, whereas the semi-final was a game England won emphatically. The fact that South Africa throttled an already choking team is to their credit. Mapimpi scored their first try in three finals, underscoring the type of rugby that South Africa embrace, with Handre Pollard playing the Wilkinsonesque role behind a pack of behemoths.

While England enjoyed territory and possession, South Africa’s dominance in the scrum and line out meant that England became tentative. The half backs and the outside backs flew up to cut out the passing lanes, and Ben Youngs and Ford, who both had poor games, were emasculated by the possibility of an intercept.

It was the performance of a team who had gleaned confidence from their performances and knew they had plenty in the tank to empty. England’s tanks were less full going into the game. The All Black game took its toll, and like France who had their emotional high in the semi-final in 1999, Warren Gatland’s words that “England have already played their final” came home to roost, much to the chagrin of Eddie Jones. In a training week where Jones would have had to balance euphoria with the task at hand; satisfaction with hunger; and confidence with a healthy respect for the Boks, the balance felt off kilter. Joe Marler’s and Dan Coles’ Punch and Judy show at a press conference a day before the final, showed that England may just have tipped over the edge. Jones’ efforts to bring them back down to earth, may have backfired.

Eventually, it was a result that even Garces didn’t spoil. Cheslin Kolbe’s try suggested that this was the most deserved of the Springbok’s three victories. But we can all agree that this certainly was the best England team not to win a final. The value of this World Cup to Siya Kolisi, and thousands of black kids who emulate him, cannot be discounted. And in the end, sometimes, sports finds its own way of serving a larger purpose.

 

 

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