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Opinion

England to have the edge over box-happy Boks

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Expert
31st October, 2019
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That the Springboks have played in two World Cup finals and won both of them without scoring a try in either tells you a lot about South African rugby.

Pragmatic, no-frills, attritional. And unapologetic.

They’ve reached another final with a typically uncompromising style; it isn’t pretty to watch but they’ve muscled their way into the decider against England on Saturday night.

Michael Cheika isn’t a fan of the “kick and defend” strategy, but the former Wallabies coach’s unwillingness to adopt anything that resembles grinding rugby has resulted in him being back in Sydney and not in Yokohama for the final weekend of the tournament.

Yep, boring is the go in Japan in 2019 and the Boks do it best.

And there’s more chance of Eben Etzebeth taking the kick-off than Rassie Erasmus preparing his Springboks team to play any differently against England. Power in the pack and Faf de Klerk putting up box kick after box kick until they get a sniff inside England’s 40-metre area.

“It’s (the final) going to be another physical one,” summed up Handre Pollard.

How many times did South Africa and Wales kick the ball between them in general play in their semi-final? 81.

Incredible. Two sides hardly looking to take control of the game, but instead aiming not to lose it.

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It was labelled by some as one of the dullest games in rugby history. Turgid was another way it was described.
South Africa’s traditional style is arguably perfectly suited for the pressures of tournament rugby; take few risks, pounce on any mistakes and pounce on the chance to kick penalty goals.

Erasmus won’t care about winning praise for playing pulsating rugby, just as his World Cup-winning predecessors.

Rassie Erasmus

Will Rassie be grinning at full time of the RWC final? (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In 1995, South Africa beat the All Blacks 15-12 in extra time in Johannesburg and in 2007 ground down England for a 15-6 victory in Paris.

It should be noted that the 12-year gap between Boks titles is up this year.

Another intriguing detail to ponder is that South Africa’s flyhalf Pollard captained the Junior Boks in 2014 and took them to the Championships final against England. Who was the England skipper that day? Maro Itoje.

The second-rower has been outstanding for England at the World Cup. If Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick were the benchmark for locks with a mix of toughness, high workrate and athleticism, then Itoje matches that and adds anticipation and speed.

Itoje is at the centre of much of England’s forward drive, and he’s powering them often for the full 80 minutes. He was everywhere against the All Blacks, ruled the lineout, won turnovers and topped it off with an opportunistic strip of the ball from Codie Taylor.

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Itoje started the last time England took on South Africa, a game won – with a controversial finish – by England 12-11 at Twickenham last year. Angus Gardner chose not to penalise Owen Farrell for a shoulder charge that could’ve given the Boks a late chance for victory.

England’s pack that day also included Kyle Sinckler and Tom Curry. But England’s forwards for the final look a lot more balanced and intimidating with the addition of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola in place of Alec Hepburn, Dylan Hartley, George Kruis, Brad Shields and Mark Wilson.

They also didn’t have Manu Tuilagi at Twickenham, and even though Ben Te’o gave them a sturdy midfield presence, Tuilagi is as fit and aggressive as he’s been for a while.

England threw a lot more in attack at New Zealand than South Africa did against Wales, but Eddie Jones will be confident that his pack can get the better of the Boks.

England don’t mind a box kick either so expect halfback high-balls – from De Klerk and Ben Youngs – over their forward packs to be a feature of the final. They might just be happy to box back and forth between both 22m lines until someone slips up.

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It might not be exciting but it is effective and the Boks and England, by using it consistently throughout the tournament on the way to the final, have proven that.

For this reason, the back three are called upon to do a lot of work to secure possession in the air. The England trio of Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson and Jonny May are better co-ordinated and aerially superior to win this key area of the final.

South Africa’s fullback, Willie Le Roux, has been underwhelming for much of the World Cup. He’s fumbled a fair bit of the ball and thrown some poor passes. He’s lost some speed.

England will target him, as they will Cheslin Kolbe. He’s a brilliant ball-runner, but given the winger stands at only 171cm, the England backs will be confident they can outleap and outmuscle Kolbe.

There’s a decent chance that South Africa might go a third World Cup final without scoring a try. But unlike the previous two, that won’t be enough to claim the title this time. England by eight.