The Roar
The Roar

And here is where it ended.

Siya Kolisi, Rassie Erasmus and South Africa’s squad who on Saturday laid claim to Yokohama’s International Stadium, and who now own the rugby world’s spoils and the hearts of their countrymen and women.

With the Rugby World Cup spanning 48 matches over a six-week period, it’s easiest to start at the end. Because no-one exactly knows when this one actually began.

Was it in July 1986, when Duane Vermeulen, man of the match in this final, was born in Nelspruit, South Africa, as uncompromising a Springbok forward to have ever played the game, epitomising the return to traditional values demanded by his coach?

Or in 2003, when 12-year old Kolisi, born to a pair of 16-year-old schoolchildren, was granted a scholarship to prestigious Grey High School, a path that not only would elevate him from his impoverished township background but, in becoming the first black rugby player to captain South Africa and now lead them to World Cup victory, to be a figurehead for unification and an inspiration for thousands more young blacks to adopt rugby and follow in his footsteps?

Or was it in Albany, on the north shore of Auckland, New Zealand, where in September 2017, South Africa suffered their biggest ever Test loss, 57-0, effectively establishing a line in the sand and hastening the move of director of rugby Erasmus into the position of head coach?

Perhaps it was at Tokyo Stadium, in South Africa’s quarter-final match against Japan, where what many pundits rated as a modest win against a valiant but emerging side was, in reality, a brilliant, brutal exhibition of defence – impenetrable force in the middle complemented by blinding speed to close down gaps out wide – that would be reprised in the final?

Or was it at 6.02pm on Saturday night, when referee Jerome Garces signalled for Handre Pollard to kick off and, in front of 70,103 people, begin the 80 minutes that would decide this tournament?

The start doesn’t go as planned for either team, Pollard missing with his first penalty attempt from 43 metres then, in the third minute, England prop Kyle Sinckler prone on the ground, out cold, having collided with Maro Itoje’s arm in a double tackle.

It feels like a huge ask for replacement Dan Cole to go 77 minutes. Tellingly, he will be tested much sooner than that.

Pollard makes a spectacular kick and catch and swings South Africa back into attack. The Boks have started brightly, happy to spread the ball wide while under penalty advantage.

It’s only eight minutes in, but England are noticeably under pressure, untidy in their own 22. Owen Farrell is penalised for holding on and Pollard easily posts the first points of the final from in front.

At ten minutes, England finally win clean lineout ball off the top but Ben Youngs throws it straight into touch. At 16 minutes they are yet to mount any serious attack in the opposition half. Already, last week seems a whole season away.

Finally, there is joy for England as South Africa are offside from a spilled catch. Probing left and right they win a second penalty for Cheslin Kolbe using hands at the breakdown. Farrell converts.

Sinckler has company in the casualty ward: Mbongeni Mbonambi concussed, replaced by Malcolm Marx, and big Lood de Jager also off, his left arm dangling limp and useless like a terminally winged bird.

In what seems like no time at all the first quarter is gone. South Africa have had the better of the arm-wrestle, but it’s all square at 3-3.

Kyle Sinckler after being knocked out in the RWC final
Handre Pollard

Early in the third week, reports surfaced of a typhoon gathering force thousands of kilometres away to the south, in the vast expanse of water near where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Philippines Sea.

Named Hagibis, meaning rapidity or speed in the Philippines Tagalog language, it was immediately earmarked as a weather event with the potential for extreme destruction. Meteorologists’ maps which showed a curved path tracking right over the top of Tokyo were met with initial scepticism by travelling fans, but by Thursday it was obvious that the World Cup was in difficulty.

Three matches were cancelled, none of which had any bearing on the final standings in pool play. But that wasn’t the real story of Hagibis.

By the time of the final, the death toll stood at 83, with 11 people still missing, presumed dead. Nearly 4000 people remained in evacuation shelters and over 40,000 homes still were without running water.

In all, an estimated total of 68,000 homes were flooded or affected by landslides, with approximately 90 per cent of those homes not eligible for financial assistance by current law, because the measured level of the flooding did not exceed a prescribed one-metre level.

With the centre of the typhoon passing over Tokyo on the evening of Saturday, October 12, it was almost impossible to reconcile the volume of wind and rain – and the death and destruction that occurred in outlying areas – with the bright sun and stillness of Sunday morning, and the realisation that the crucial match between Japan and Scotland would proceed as scheduled.

Inevitably, World Rugby faced criticism for having scheduled the event for Japan in October, and for having no contingency to shift or reschedule affected games. But the truth is that typhoons are extremely rare for central and northern Honshu so late in the season, particularly one of this size and intensity.

Critics also failed to account for how Cup organisers were to know in advance on what day, at exactly what location, and with what force any typhoon would hit, so as to enact a specific contingency plan.

In the end, World Rugby walked a fine line, but in taking care to consult with local officials at every turn, ensured that they retained the integrity of the playing terms and conditions, and balanced the needs of the tournament in terms of fairness and the safety of participants and fans, with appropriate sensitivity towards the victims.

The karma moment that quickly followed with Scotland’s elimination had fans everywhere nodding their heads in satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson, who launched a stinging attack on World Rugby for its inflexibility and unwillingness to reschedule their match should it not proceed on the Sunday. Dodson insisted that Scotland would not become “collateral damage” from the typhoon, and flagged legal action should that be the case.

It was a stunning misfire. Failure by the Scots to understand the extent of the potential danger was one thing, but to totally misread what everyone else caught up in the confusion understood – that this was about more than rugby – was both bewildering and embarrassing.

It marked the low point for the tournament, although the karma moment that quickly followed with Scotland’s elimination had fans everywhere nodding their heads in satisfaction.

Hagibis also marked the mid-point of the Cup, and emphasized how the tournament comprises two distinct parts, each with a very different feel.

During the pool phase, every team is in with a chance of a win, the energy generated by visiting fans from all twenty nations is palpable, and colour and excitement abounds. The schedule provides for a match almost every day or night, leading to continued interaction of fans in front of TV screens at bars and pubs, all of them dishing and copping good-natured banter in rapid fire.

At this stage, the World Cup is a carnival awash with exuberance, not the serious business of the final three weeks.

Once the quarter-finalists are determined and teddy bears can draw breath again (following their elimination, two Uruguayan players were involved in an incident at a nightclub where a DJ was allegedly assaulted and a stuffed teddy bear eviscerated), the tone noticeably alters. The weeks become longer and, starved of live games to keep them occupied but harangued by editors desperate to keep the coverage rolling, journalists conjure stories that become increasingly trivial or speculative.

New fans arrive, cut from a different template. In larger, organised groups, from fewer countries, some of whom, like the Irish and Australians, had rolled the dice on following their sides into the final fortnight only to come up empty.

The finals offer the rugby purist matches with gravitas and the certainty of seeing the best sides in action. On the other hand, early arrivals get a guarantee of seeing their own, plus almost a match a day and as much shoulder-to-shoulder, pint-to-pint revelry with kindred spirits from around the globe that they can handle.

Attending a World Cup final is something to be treasured, but from 20 hopefuls only one team can win it. Fans with an eye to France in 2023 might do well to consider those odds and what type of experience it is they want before deciding on their touring strategy.

A sign outside of the Yokohama Stadium informs of the cancellation of the England v France game
Japan celebrate their win over Scotland
Rugby World Cup fans

England muff a restart. Marx is the first head to pop up at the scrum, but Cole is launched the highest. Pollard drills it from 28 metres on the angle.

At 26 minutes Youngs again passes poorly, then George Ford misses touch by a foot. England’s error rate is off the charts and shows no sign of abating.

TV cameramen immediately sniff out the story. Eddie Jones is only a small man but he fills the stadium screen, standing, his anxious body language a depiction of how his side is playing.

At 28 minutes Lukhanyo Am drops it cold with Makazole Mapimpi on a clear overlap outside him. In tight finals like these, you don’t always get a second chance to make amends.

Finally, England find rhythm and continuity. Their attack is incessant, but the defence from the Springboks brutal. It looked it might have been more, should have been more, but England are forced to settle for three points only.

Thirty-seven minutes now and even the hardest men are feeling the pinch: Vermeulen wins a penalty at the ruck and requires repairs to his shoulder for his trouble. Pollard from 41 metres, as true as you like. The Boks, 9-6.

They follow up immediately. Am runs nicely into space, chips ahead, and Eliot Daly fumbles one he should have swallowed. The scrum is South Africa’s friend, referee Jerome Garces awards them another penalty, their third at scrum time, and Pollard closes out the half from 38 metres.

A 12-6 lead at half-time is one nobody can deny South Africa. England’s passing is inaccurate, spreading like Russian swine fever from Youngs at the base, but Jones’ options are limited. He has an unproven debutant on the bench.

Farrell gathers his players on the field in a tight circle before they retreat to the sheds. They have 40 minutes to save their World Cup.

It is to take nothing away from South Africa’s victory to hail the World Cup’s second winner, Japan. On the field, Jamie Joseph’s team made history, qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time, beating Ireland (ranked number one in the world only weeks before) and Scotland along the way to winning Pool A unbeaten.

But more than this stunning result Japan thrilled audiences and captured imaginations all around the world with the manner in which they played.

Japanese rugby has always tended towards fast ball movement to counter an inevitable size and weight disparity. Here, Joseph built upon that foundation, committing his players to a distinctive, purpose-built style that his players, save for a nervous, fumbling opening night against Russia, gleefully and skilfully mastered.

If anyone had told Michael Leitch, while he was ambling along Victoria Street in Hamilton a few years ago, that he would one day be the hero of the Rugby World Cup, with tens of thousands of people shouting his name in unison every time he touched the ball, he would rightly have had them certified as out of their mind.

a japanese welsh rugby fan

Try telling this chap Wales play boring rugby. (Image: Geoff Parkes)

Off the field, Japan proved to be the perfect host. With World Athletics and FIFA among global sports bodies kicking own goals with questionable scheduling of their flagship events, it only took two happenings – 15,000 people attending an early Wales training session in Kitakyushu, and the opening ceremony and first match held at Tokyo Stadium on September 20 – for everyone to know that World Rugby had played the right card.

With only 2100 kilometres spanning Sapporo and Kumamoto, the northern and southernmost stadiums, and a super-efficient train system capable of shifting tens of thousands of fans around with speed and comfort, all participants – players, fans and hosts – remained connected to the event and each other throughout.

It is commonplace for all major sporting events to use teams of volunteers to point visitors in the right direction, but here Japan took this to another level. Aware that in the wake of Hagibis, Tokyo’s train system would remain shut down for hours until all safety checks were completed, volunteers spent the night under the stands at Yokohama Stadium, just so they could get to work at first light to make the ground playable.

And the genuine, cheery smiles, high fives and well wishes of the volunteers manning the train stations and walkways in and out of the stadiums will never be forgotten by all those who visited.

“Thank you for coming”, they implored.

Trust us, Japan, the pleasure was all ours.

There were contrasts at every juncture. The Japanese propensity to smother everything in multiple layers of packaging is baffling. But my favourite was a small urban park, where on a four-lane synthetic running track, around which locals could exercise, lanes three and four were blocked-off on one turn by a wooden structure, designated a smoking area.

a Japanese smoking manner guide at the Rugby World Cup

If you’re going to smoke, do so courteously, right? (Image: Geoff Parkes)

Remarkable was the propensity for local fans to adopt one (or more) of the visiting sides as their own. Merchandise tents and sports clothing stores were gutted within a week, and fans took it upon themselves to not only learn the national anthems of the combatants at games they attended, but to sing them out with gusto.

But as Japan’s golden run continued, there was no mistaking where their real loyalties lay – with their Brave Blossoms. Japanese rugby fans do not rely on a belly full of beer to enhance the experience. They attended as families, as groups of girlfriends having a fun night out, as couples out on a date – all of them unfailingly politely accommodating of any boisterous, inked-up groups of likely lads who crossed their path.

Japan’s World Cup apogee came on the final night of pool play, Scotland sent packing, enveloped in a cloud of red-and-white-charged fans who required no second invitation or artificial stimulus to produce what was at times a deafening roar.

People who were at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium the night Cathy Freeman won the women’s 400 metres gold medal would relate. Taking a moment to reflect with Sydney Morning Herald rugby writer Georgina Robinson, we looked out across Yokohama Stadium as the sides took the field and quietly acknowledged the special atmosphere and our good fortune to be witness to such an occasion.

All of which makes what happens next for Japanese rugby, poised at a crucial crossroads, so fascinating.

They may have been eagerly welcomed into international rugby’s Tier 1 enclave with open arms, but there is genuine fear among many involved in the game in Japan that expectation has been raised to levels that will prove impossible to meet. 70,000 madly cheering fans at Yokohama might be a wonder to behold, but it belies the thin veneer that is Nihon rugby.

Elite playing strength and depth is shallow, particularly in key specialist positions like the second row and midfield. There remains an imbalance and over-reliance on imported players to plug gaps in ‘big men’ positions.

All of the top nations have well-resourced under-20 programs, but at their two most recent appearances at the World Under 20s championships in 2016 and 2018, Japan finished last of 12 teams and were relegated. This year they won promotion again and will participate in the 2020 tournament in Italy.

Hardly the bedrock on which competitive Tier 1 rugby nations are built.

Rugby’s traditional origins in Japan were through universities, and then through company-owned and sponsored teams, evolving into what is today’s sixteen-team Japan Top League.

There is genuine fear in Japan that expectation has been raised to levels that will prove impossible to meet.

The advent of professionalism and influx of more high-profile players and coaches from overseas has heightened visibility, but fan support from people without a direct attachment to a company is muted. Many people attend matches as invited guests or because that’s the done thing for employees, often with an eye to the boss for their cue to politely clap.

Schoolboy and amateur club rugby are poorly resourced, with matches usually played on substandard pitches and where, in the absence of clubhouses, after-match functions are often held on the footpaths outside convenience stores, players drinking from cans of beer purchased inside.

A major impediment is Japan’s one sport policy at school, where children are forced at an early age to select the sport they wish to participate in, without being allowed to compete in multiple sports as is the norm elsewhere. Tall kids being enticed to play basketball at an early age, without any avenue for them to take up rugby, feeds directly into the dearth of elite second-rowers down the track.

The inclusion of the Sunwolves in Super Rugby in 2015 allowed independent fans an avenue to support rugby and, atypically for Japan, provided them with a voice. The howling that rugby fans love and associate with the Sunwolves was started spontaneously by a group of fans at their early home games – not borne of a marketing focus group.

At his press conference immediately following the Blossoms’ epic win over Scotland, coach Joseph made a point of acknowledging the role that the Sunwolves’ inclusion in Super Rugby had played in getting his players accustomed to a higher standard, and what was required of them at this top level in terms of travel, preparation and conditioning.

Sunwolves players show dejection

The Sunwolves played a crucial role in Japan’s surge to the quarter-finals but have been axed from Super Rugby.

Joseph’s comments were immediately but errantly interpreted as a swipe at SANZAAR, when in fact they were aimed at his own bosses, imploring them not to turn Japanese rugby’s focus inwards and risk being left behind – a likely outcome if players are no longer exposed weekly to the best rugby from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

It won’t be long before matters come to a head. After Japan’s win against Ireland, JRFU vice president Katsuyuki Kiyomiya announced his intention to hold a press conference on November 18, where he plans to announce details of a new professional league, flagged to begin in 2021.

UK-based sports streaming provider DAZN Group has already signalled its intention to be a commercial partner, and there are said to be other high-profile potential investors lining up for a piece of the action.

One thing everyone agrees on is the need to act quickly, to seize the moment. But it will not be easy to meld the disparate interests of the existing company teams (some of whom would be excluded or relegated into a second-tier company competition), fans who would prefer to be aligned with geographically-based teams, the commercial wants of sponsors and investors, and the need for Japanese rugby not to block pathways for their own developing players by team owners filling their rosters with players from overseas.

All of that before issues are solved around access to suitable stadia, and the timing of the competition with respect to an already clogged global calendar.

SANZAAR, meanwhile, sits close by, enticed by the untapped commercial potential of bringing Japan into their fold, but walking a very fine line between providing assistance to Japan (needed and wanted) and helping them shape a competition which complements rather than competes with what Australia and New Zealand already have in place, all while not overstepping into meddling in their domestic affairs.

SANZAAR is acutely aware that their long-term interests are not best served by the uncontrolled growth of another rich professional league, particularly if left to the devices of private owners without regard for equalisation and wage control measures, who will merely repeat the same top-down mistakes made in other places and provide no benefit to Japan’s grassroots. And which, when added to the competitions of the northern hemisphere, will serve to pull even more players away from Australia and New Zealand.

Admittance into the Rugby Championship is a given, but what will ultimately determine whether Japan sinks or swims with the big fish is what transpires over the next 12-18 months. How they transform an archaic domestic structure into something contemporary that works for them, and for rugby in the region, and converts the fan interest generated from this World Cup into rusted-on, long-term participation and support for the sport.

England start the second half with intent but the South African defence isn’t for bending. Pieter Steph du Toit and Vermeulen are dominating the midfield, Franco Mostert is mopping up the edges. England try again with Manu Tuilagi, but he is being given no leeway.

At 45 minutes, South Africa swap their props out. The outcome is the same, a fourth scrum penalty. Pollard extends the lead to 15-6. A fifth follows straight after. This is a demolition job nobody foresaw.

Forty-nine minutes now and Ford is replaced by Henry Slade. Joe Marler also enters the fray and out of nowhere, the England scrum finds a new gear and wins a penalty back. Farrell from 40 metres makes it 15-9.

England are present now. Anthony Watson ankle taps Pollard on a kick return and Sam Underhill swoops for the turnover. It’s Farrell again from 39 out but this time he misses. It feels like a big moment.

England’s inaccuracy resurfaces. Billy Vunipola drops the restart, Willie le Roux kicks to open space and Daly can only scramble an ugly kick to the 22. Inattention to the basics is costing England huge metres. And now points, offside at a maul. Pollard nails another easy three.

At 58 minutes, Marx returns the favour, pinged for cleaning out from the side. Farrell narrows it back to six points, 18-12. There is all to play for in the final quarter.

Over a bowl of ramen in Tokyo, a person much wiser than me observed that “what will mark our generation in history will be our inability to understand or show perspective”.

We were discussing the furore that had enveloped the Cup as a result of World Rugby’s insistence on lowering tackle heights, and the historically high incidence of red cards and suspensions issued as a result.

“Red card mania ruining the World Cup”

“World Cup has turned into a joke”

“Hey World Rugby it’s not me it’s you”

“Games being destroyed”

“Rugby’s suspensions make the game look soft”

On and on the headlines insisted; the World Cup was being ruined by the lawmakers, referees, and Ben Skeen. Rugby was a laughing stock. Players like Reece Hodge and Thomas Lavanini were considered to be unlucky victims, and fans the losers.

Then three things happened.

Tomas Lavanini

Tomas Lavanini was cast as an unlucky victim of overzealous referee. He’s also the most-carded player in Pumas history.

Canadian forward Josh Larsen received a red card and three-match ban for attacking the neck and head of Springbok Thomas du Toit. No sooner had match blogs and fan websites lit up in anger at ‘yet another ridiculous decision’, Larsen made his way to the South African dressing room and, taking responsibility for his own actions, apologised for his stupidity.

French lock Sebastien Vaahamahina, in their quarter-final against France, threw his cocked elbow into the jaw of Welshman Aaron Wainright, somehow forgetting that even if referee Jaco Peyper wasn’t looking, multiple cameras were. Coming on top of the suspensions of Italian props Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio for their appalling tip on Vermeulen, here was a reminder that red cards were indeed a very necessary thing.

The biggest thing that changed, however, was that the elimination phase contained the better players, coaches and referees, none of whom could afford to play victim or underestimate what was required of them.

The issue disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived, Vaahamahina’s moment of Zidane-like insanity the only red card of the eight final matches, with not even a single yellow issued in the semi-finals or final.

One valid concern was to question why World Rugby would implement such change in a World Cup year. In truth, the policy was already there, backed by an exhaustive body of evidence-based research. It was just that some media and coaches, notably Australia’s Michael Cheika, weren’t listening.

The officials adjusted, as did the better teams, and the sport will continue to evolve as it always has. And for interest, here is Irish sports and rugby website The 42, from eight years ago: “The 2011 Rugby World Cup has been ruined by referees and that’s how it will be remembered”.

No it wasn’t, and no it hasn’t. Just as 2019 won’t.

A real issue for the lasting health of the game is the continued disparity between rugby’s dominant sides and the developing nations. At the completion of the pool phase, World Rugby trumpeted statistics that showed the average winning margin in matches between Tier 1 and Tier 2 sides reducing from 36 points in 2011 to 30 points in 2019.

What does that mean exactly? That by 2027 the margin will be reduced to 24 points and we’ll all feel that much better about the game?

New Zealand defeated Namibia at the 2015 World Cup 58-14, with the Africans gaining only 30 per cent possession and 57 metres with the ball. Here in Tokyo, against the same opposition, they played inspired rugby for sustained spells, winning 46 per cent possession and making 302 metres with ball in hand.

“The 2011 Rugby World Cup has been ruined by referees and that’s how it will be remembered.” No it wasn’t, and no it hasn’t. Just as 2019 won’t.

The All Blacks won 71-9. Go figure.

Taking into account Namibia’s 142-0 loss to Australia in 2003, their improvement is stark and undeniable. But as progress is made with respect to their coaching, strength and conditioning and preparation time, these are improvements relative to their own benchmark. With the RFU proposing a £443 million investment into rugby over the next World Cup cycle, and Eddie Jones afforded the luxury of 24 support staff in Japan, it is clear that elite nations are not standing still.

Some nations are not improving at all; Samoa, Tonga, USA and Canada among those whose World Cup contributions were valuable but, as is the case every time, never more than making up the numbers.

Looking enviously towards Japan’s Joseph, coaches were unanimous in calling for more games against better opposition. But with rugby’s global calendar already an overwrought arm-wrestle between French and English clubs and the Tier 1 national unions, all striving to maximise revenue, it is difficult to envisage how this can occur.

World Rugby continues to invest in developing nations, but Italy has shown since their admittance to the Six Nations in 2000 that a cash windfall bears little value if local administrators are not prepared or capable of spending it wisely to develop a broader playing and coaching base.

The proposed Nations Championship was a noble attempt to construct a global schedule with better equity and opportunity spread, yet it was World Rugby’s very own governance structure that allowed the minority voices of Scotland and Italy to consign it to failure before it even started.

Judging by the limp performance of both nations at this World Cup, it is understandable why they seek to protect their own interest. But it also serves as a sad reminder of how the name “World Rugby” implies an overarching control and guidance of the sport that commercial, free-market reality renders impotent.

In the meantime, the vanquished nations have retreated home with their respective tails between their legs, many of them considering their coaching options.

Eddie Jones exuded an aura of calm control right through the tournament, yet leaves without understanding exactly why his team failed to rise to the occasion – albeit with a suspicion that four years of planning to beat the All Blacks in a semi-final may have left nothing in the tank for the week after.

Eddie Jones

The loss to South Africa was Eddie Jones’ second final defeat.

Sinckler’s early loss was pivotal. But for all that might not have fallen their way on the night, their fumbling final downfall was overwhelmingly their own doing. They bear the lament of all losers, yet their second-place marks them as a quality team who can expect to keep improving.

Steve Hansen’s non-selection of Sam Cane for the semi-final was a costly mistake, but one that doesn’t come close to tarnishing a legacy which saw him coach the All Blacks in 107 Test matches for only ten defeats. Good luck to whoever takes the job in trying to match that.

Wales’ Warren Gatland returns to New Zealand after securing his fourth Six Nations title and a second creditable semi-final appearance with a squad the most banged up of all the leading contenders.

France’s Jacques Brunel is another to depart – six weeks too late for many of his players’ liking – but such is French rugby.

Upon Ireland’s elimination, there were grumblings from home about coach Joe Schmidt, but even if their 2019 decline was rapid, Schmidt’s achievements have been many, and his contribution will ultimately be viewed positively.

Australia’s Michael Cheika was given five years and virtually untapped resources, including extended preparation camps this year in South Africa, New Caledonia and Japan. That the Wallabies entered a quarter-final against England still to determine their best backline and loose forward combinations was an indictment on a coach who gave his heart and soul to the job in an era where elite coaching requires more than that.

With England in their pool, a heartbreaking 23-21 loss to France meant Argentina’s World Cup was effectively over on the first weekend. Hamstrung by isolation and a strong domestic amateur ethos, they badly need to find a way to broaden their professional playing base.

Of the remaining nations, Fiji entered the Cup with the highest expectation. And for 50 minutes against Australia, they looked capable of matching what Japan did. But a surprisingly poor performance against Uruguay, resulting in a shock 30-27 loss, stopped them in their tracks.

Uruguay’s win certainly gave the Cup a boost, as did the brave performances of Namibia. It is a curiosity that their coach, Welshman Phil Davies, isn’t on more lists of contenders for bigger coaching positions.

Like all World Cups, this one gave up plenty of great tries. France delivered some specials, as did Wales against Fiji, while Marika Koroibete’s growing assuredness translated into two stunning efforts.

But the best of all was laid on by two New Zealand halfbacks, Brad Weber and TJ Perenara, who, despite extreme commitment from the Namibian defenders, reached into their box of magic tricks to somehow conspire for Perenara to squeeze the ball down in an inch of space in the corner. Simply wonderful.

TJ Perenara on his way to scoring against Namibia
TJ Perenara on his way to scoring against Namibia
TJ Perenara on his way to scoring against Namibia
TJ Perenara on his way to scoring against Namibia

It’s only six points, but it feels like everything needs to go right for England from here. Nine will be too many. Watson doesn’t get the memo, picked up for a shoulder nudge on a kick chase. Soft but silly. Pollard tries his luck from 53 metres but mistimes it.

Sixty-three minutes now, and skipper Kolisi is replaced by Francois Louw. Pollard kicks high, Mapimpi matches Daly in the air and wins a scrum. There’s your example right there of how much cleaner South Africa have been.

At 66 minutes it finally happens. The Boks shift to the blind, Marx flicks it onto Mapimpi who has a channel against the touchline. He chips into space, it falls kindly for the galloping Am, who resists the modern urge to go into contact and instead instinctively sends it straight back to his winger with a delightful pass.

The game has the try it, but not England, needed: 25-12.

It is now or never for England. Watson runs to seven short of the line but there is the tiniest of fumbles on the ground. Swing Low is now low indeed, in volume and punch. It is a spiritless ritual.

And now the South African bench is up on their feet, riding every tackle, urging their defensive line forward.

Seventy-three minutes and another England fumble, the story of their night. Du Toit frees Kolbe on the right wing. He’s covered by Daly, Farrell and a few forwards, but then in a flash and a fleeting step isn’t. Kolbe streaks away to seal a win that, really, was already theirs: 32-12.

At 77 minutes the engraver is at work, adding South Africa’s name to the Web Ellis Trophy for the third time. He could safely have started earlier.

England have been done just like they did New Zealand and like New Zealand did Ireland. The winner seized the initiative, controlled the tempo, and denied them their game. Built upon defence to be sure, but with a typical Springbok stamp – fracturing play to create try-scoring opportunities for their fast men.

It is no surprise that the match ends with the Boks hot on attack. England have never given up, but neither have they anything else to give. Pollard has the final say, sending the ball into the northern stand at the sound of the final gong.

Any sense of frustration with the way Springboks played within themselves as they made their way to the final has been comprehensively washed away. Erasmus afterwards credited their scrum dominance to the way in which players were managed and kept fresh. In retrospect, South Africa paced themselves perfectly – tournament rugby does not allow the luxury of brilliant one week, poor the next. You just have to stay in the competition for five weeks, any way you can, and then bring your best for the sixth.

It is a double victory for Erasmus. Of course he wanted the Cup, but more than anything he craved credibility and the restoration of South African rugby’s psyche – both for his troubled nation and for people who understand the game and understand the Springbok mentality.

Cheslin Kolbe
Siya Kolisi

The final word is reserved for the game of rugby itself. Sportsmanship shown by players to their opponents throughout the tournament has been exemplary. Ditto for the hordes of travelling fans. That mutual respect also extended to press conferences where, time after time, coaches made a point of acknowledging and praising their counterparts.

When Kolisi, with a calm command of proceedings befitting the statesman that he is, showed his men to the winner’s stage, England, to a man, clapped them forward. Most of their fans too, stayed inside the stadium – it wasn’t their moment but generously, they too acknowledged the victor.

Rugby’s kinship is a value that many sports either have little inkling of, or can only dream of aspiring to.

The night before the final, at a tiny bar in Shimbashi, where a crowd had gathered to watch the third place play-off, a Japanese woman in her 20s was dwarfed by a group of beefy Brits, Kiwis and Frenchmen. Everyone conceded space so she could get a clear view of the TV screen.

I asked her about her interest in rugby.

With near impeccable English, courtesy of a work posting in Boston, she explained she was a first-time fan, captivated by the sport since the beginning of the World Cup.

“Your favourite player?” I enquired.

“Leitch, Michael”, she replied. No surprise there.

“And why do you like rugby?” I asked.

“Because it is so powerful and aggressive”, she said. “But at the same time the players always show sporting character and respect. That is something I want to teach my children.”

After six weeks, seeing 14 matches live and almost every single other one on TV, her answer will do me.

And here is where it ended.

South Africa's players bow to the crowd

Written by Geoff Parkes

Geoff Parkes is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012, originally under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Conflict; the Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy was released in December 2017 to critical acclaim. Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.

Editing, design and layout by Daniel Jeffrey

Image credit: All images are copyright Getty Images unless otherwise stated.