The Pool B opener between South Africa and New Zealand certainly didn’t go according to Rassie Erasmus’ intended script.
After 20 minutes of bossing the opposition, the Springboks had not managed to translate pressure into points. A few defensive lapses allowed the venomous and devastating New Zealand counter-attack two tries in a short period of time, sealing the match for the early tournament favourites.
Erasmus wore a wry grin in his post-match interview, and the former Springbok vindicated his selection as head coach and rirector of rugby by orchestrating a fairytale World Cup campaign to cap off an incredible turnaround of a previously struggling Springbok side since his appointment in March 2018.
Convincing – albeit expected – wins in the remaining pool games against Italy, Canada and Namibia did little to solidify South Africa as contenders for the title. But the reserved and focused Boks chipped away, dispatching Japan with a comprehensive defensive display married to some good attacking prowess in the quarters.
The semi-final against Wales was a dire affair, devoid of enterprise or spectacle. It was the antithesis of the England-New Zealand contest, which was praised as being the finest match of the tournament, a coaching masterclass by Eddie Jones, and a wonderful advertisement for the sport.
Sure, the Springboks’ semi-final wasn’t as entertaining as the English contest. Certainly, the Boks looked reluctant to keep ball in hand, and were content with the tried and true tactics of playing in the opposition half and applying defensive pressure.
Was it pretty? No.
Did the Boks make the final? Yes.
Unlike the knock-out stages of previous tournaments, Erasmus constructed a game plan that would nullify the Welsh, secure a victory, and most importantly, an invitation to the big dance.
To last night’s final, which saw the Boks establish dominance among the forwards, kick and aerially contest astutely, compete effectively at the set piece, defend ferociously and score two brilliant attacking tries.
A comprehensive display of true grit, focused aggression and brilliant agility saw the Boks dictate the game from the outset, and secure a historic third World Cup title.
Earlier in the tournament I bemoaned the performance of key players, including Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux. In the lead-up to the final, I felt that our playmakers would have to stand up on the night or the team would fall as a whole.
Every Springbok on the field was a playmaker last night. Notably, some players who had struggled with form this year played the game of their lives.
The front row scrummed like men possessed. The towering locks (starters and replacements) tackled with intent, carried brilliantly and ran the lineout with authority. Our captain, Siya Kolisi, had an industrious outing and, although not flashy, he was a defensive pillar and had a big role at securing the breakdown.
Pieter-Steph du Toit, who is seemingly indefatigable, had another incredible display of athleticism in both attack and defence. Duane Vermeulen, deservedly man of the match, cried with joy at the final whistle after having one of his best matches in a Springboks jersey. He was granitic in defence and relentless with ball in hand.
Our back line functioned well as a defensive unit, and when the opportunities arose, produced attacking magic to score tries.
De Klerk was a defensive thorn in England’s side, often rushing up to shut down their attack, forcing multiple unforced errors and ensuring England couldn’t establish an attacking rhythm.
Handre Pollard marshalled the backline, took the ball into contact well, and had a couple of runs which almost broke the English defence. He defended like a Trojan, slotted penalties when it mattered, and his big-match temperament shone through. He has the makings of a future Boks legend.
Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am were a green wall, and attacked well despite few opportunities. South Africa has not had a settled, devastating midfield pairing since Jean De Villiers and Jaque Fourie. Here’s hoping they can establish a similar partnership in the coming years.
Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe competed fiercely in the air, defended valiantly, and brought a much needed X-factor to our attack. Willie le Roux, who has struggled throughout the tournament, stepped up like only a champion can. He injected himself into attack – often as first receiver – drawing defenders, distributing well and kicking with his former confidence. Our replacement bomb squad, all good enough to start, each played their role in securing this victory.
As the hooter blew, Pollard ended proceedings with a kick into touch, securing a historic victory for South Africa: three-time World Cup winners, the only team to win the Rugby Championship and the World Cup in the same year, the first team to drop a pool game and win the tournament and the first SA team to score a try in the final.
This is a victory that few saw coming, especially two years ago when South Africa effectively hit rock bottom following historic losses to New Zealand, Italy and pretty much everyone else.
What Rassie Erasmus was able to achieve in such a short amount of time is nothing short of extraordinary. He took a team on the brink of irrelevance, slipping further into the mire of mediocrity, and restored the pride so synonymous with the Springboks emblem.
In the post-match press conference, the coach spoke of pressure. He mentioned that real pressure involves not knowing where your next meal comes from, or having a someone close to you murdered. The team soberly reflected on the actual pressures of everyday life for so many South Africans.
This allowed them to view playing the game with a sense of responsibility, and privilege, in order to bring hope to so many. It was a special insight into the coach’s emotional intelligence, as well as the special culture within the championship-winning camp.
Indeed, Erasmus deserves due credit for his professionalism and meticulous planning. His ability to engineer such a miraculous turnaround is a testament to his ability as a mentor, coach and motivator. This win is every bit his as much as the players.
Although, I’m sure the humble servant of South African rugby would never acknowledge it. He’d just smile and crack wise, probably already thinking ahead to the next match.
So, cheers to Rassie and his men – 2019 Rugby World Cup champions. When faced with the ultimate opportunity, they seized it, became the best version of themselves, and showed us all the blueprint of a championship side.