There were no surprises when Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus laid out his hand moments after qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
“We’ll go the grind-it-out route,” he said.
Such an admission doesn’t matter. Putting your hand face-up makes little difference when you’re playing with transparent cards.
South Africa’s gameplan in Japan has been devoid of surprises from day dot: uncompromising, relentless defence accompanied by uncompromising, relentless kicking. Efficient brutality in the contact zone matched by brutal efficiency at the set-piece.
Bet that’s the first time you’ve ever read that about a Springboks team, eh?
Eddie Jones’ England have shown far greater tactical versatility in their charge to the final. Sliding George Ford, their best-performed player of the pool stage, to the bench for the quarter-final against the Wallabies was followed by bringing him back into the starting XV against the All Blacks. Both moves worked to perfection.
The Red Roses outmuscled New Zealand, dominated the breakdown, and looked better when the ball went wide. Their lineout was excellent – one notable blooper notwithstanding – their defence nigh-on flawless, and their kicking has been unerring throughout the tournament.
They are the more complete side, and can undoubtedly hurt South Africa in more ways than they can be stung in return.
And yet, I’ve talked myself into tipping the Boks.
Maybe it’s a kind of Australian insecurity which couldn’t bear the thought of England winning two World Cups in the one year. Probably is, truth be told.
But there are genuine factors which point to a South African win.
While England enjoyed a physical dominance over the All Blacks, that won’t come as easily – or at all – against the behemoths in the Springbok pack and midfield.
They don’t have the pilfering ability of someone like Tom Curry, but those big-bodied boppers will be able to slow down the breakdown. There’s little South Africa will lose in a slow match, whereas their opponents will be far more dangerous with quick, clean ball.
The scrum and lineout will be crucial. The Springboks’ dourness in attack means they won’t be able to outscore England without getting a good platform from the set-piece.
Both packs are strong, more so than any others this tournament, and there’s no obvious standout heading into the final.
The Boks have more receiving options in the lineout, although Maro Itoje and co showed in the semi-final they’re capable of overcoming that obstacle. South Africa, too, may have a slight edge at scrum time. Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola are a formidable prop pairing, but do England have the depth to deal with the forwards Erasmus will send on in the second half?
The reserves have been critical in both sides’ success this tournament.
Jones has been clear on the importance of his finishers, going so far as to politely, smilingly eviscerate the notion Ford was ‘dropped’ to the bench.
“Maybe you guys have got to start reporting differently,” he said after the win against the Wallabies. “Come into modern rugby. Join us. Rugby has changed, it’s a 23-man game.”
The point was made clear after beating the All Blacks, too.
“We picked our finishing XV first. That’s always the most crucial area when you play New Zealand and our finishers did a super job. They closed the game out for us, played with energy and discipline, and as a result, New Zealand struggled to get back in the game.”
The Springboks get even more from their bench. Among their forward finishers – the ‘bomb squad’, as they’re known within the team – are their top two front-rowers, Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitschoff. Marx and backup flanker Francois Louw are the side’s premier on-ball exponents. RG Snyman has been one of the best locks this tournament.
That group, which also contains Vincent Koch and Franco Mostert, should give South Africa the upper hand up front in the closing stages of the final.
Cheslin Kolbe’s return is a considerable boost, too. Brilliant in the games he’s been fit for this tournament, he’s far surer under the high ball than his 171-centimetre frame would indicate
After being sorely missed against Wales, the diminutive winger will bring some much-needed pace and incisiveness in attack, and a willingness to go looking for the ball. He might be just what South Africa need to break open the opposition defence.
Of course, if England trot out the same performance from last week, the Boks might as well not turn up.
Is it repeatable? Surely not. Not because England aren’t capable of playing that well, but because it was as clinical and complete an outing many can ever remember seeing at a World Cup. Our chances of seeing it two Saturdays in a row are smaller than the gaps in the South African defence.
Four teams in tournament history have bested the All Blacks before the final. Just one of them went onto win the following week – Bob Dwyer’s 1991 Wallabies.
That’s not to say England are faced with some unbreakable curse today. Only that having to prepare for a knockout match against the best team in the world, then backing up for another, somehow more important, game the following week, must be incredibly difficult.
Yes, there are many ifs and buts which must become altogether more real for the Springboks to claim the Web Ellis Trophy for the third time. And although their gameplan is dour and pragmatic, it is suited to the cut-throat realities of knockout rugby.
In the aftermath of the win against Wales, speaking ahead to what will be his final Test in charge of the Springboks, Erasmus alluded to that very point:
“I’m not 100 per cent sure that a World Cup final is going to be won by an expansive gameplan with wonderful tries.”
Me neither, Rassie. Me neither.
Prediction: South Africa by three points