Springboks’ victory driven by a strain of desire few others can comprehend
THE GUARDIAN / 03 NOVEMBER 2019 - 13.01 /STAFF REPORTER
Led by a kid from the townships, South Africa’s triumphant side simply had more to play for than England
Andy Bull at International Stadium Yokohama
South African captain Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Cup with the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
If there has been a theme of the World Cup, a lesson for us all to take from these long seven weeks, it is this: the game sometimes runs on strange and powerful currents. It is not necessarily the sharpest, smartest, fittest, fastest or strongest team that wins, but the one who wants it most.
Listening to South Africa’s captain, Siya Kolisi, and coach, Rassie Erasmus, talk about what this victory meant in the minutes after they had won it, you began to understand exactly what England were up against and the way the Springboks were thinking about it, England had lost the match before it even began.
Nobody had won the World Cup after losing a game earlier in the tournament. That was one of Eddie Jones’s favourite facts, one he quoted more than once along the way, as his team reeled off their five consecutive victories. Then they met the Springboks, who were beaten by New Zealand in the opening week. This time, the end was in the beginning.
“That first defeat was a great lesson for us,” Erasmus said. “The whole week was terrible, the entire buildup, and that taught us a lot about how we should handle the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.”
Rassie Erasmus on captain Kolisi and creating hope in South Africa – video
“Because South Africa has a lot of problems and we started talking about how rugby shouldn’t be something that puts pressure on you. It should be something that creates hope. But you can’t create hope just by talking about it, hope is not something you say in a beautiful tweet.
“Hope is when you play well. Hope is when people watch the game on a Saturday, and they have a BBQ, and they feel good about themselves, and no matter your political differences, or your belief differences, for those 80 minutes, you all agree. It is not our responsibility as players to create that hope, it is our privilege.”
What did England, this callow team, the youngest to play in a final in the professional era, have to pitch against that? South Africa showed these men of will, what will really is.
Listening to Erasmus talk, sport never sounded less like war minus the shooting. Which was strange, because during the game it seldom looked so much like it. Especially on England’s side. “It felt like we didn’t fire a shot in that first half,” said Owen Farrell.
They threw just about everything else at South Africa, mind, and the match felt, at times, almost too vicious and too brutal, that the players were giving more than should ever be demanded in the cause of what is, at the end of it all, just entertainment.
There were casualties. South Africa lost their hooker, Mbongeni Mbonambi, and their lock Lood de Jager in the heat of the opening 20 minutes. Although you cannot really divide a match such as this one up into quarters. It seemed, like trench warfare, to pass in seasons, with a frontline that hardly seemed to shift position for long stretches.
Neither of South Africa’s losses cost them quite as much as England’s did, though. Kyle Sinckler was knocked out cold. He caught an elbow on the head as he tried to tackle Makazole Mapimpi. It was five long minutes before Sinckler even shifted.
It was the first turning point. Sinckler is one of the keystones England’s game is built on. They missed him in attack, because their runners flow around him, and missed him even more in the set pieces.
In the next 40 minutes, the South Africa pack ate up England’s scrum as if it had been charcoal-grilled and served up in a bun with mustard and fried onions. England buckled at the first scrum after the restart, where they conceded the first of the six scrum penalties they gave up in the space of 40 minutes. It was a judo move. The Springboks had taken one of England’s biggest strengths and, by attacking it so ruthlessly, turned it into one of their biggest weaknesses.
Erasmus did not want to take credit for it. “The one thing I don’t want to do is sound very clever now, because I know that pisses a lot of people off when you sound clever about things you’ve done beforehand,” he said. The scrummaging, he explained, was just the result of the way he had managed his players’ workload. “I think it is because of the 6-2 split we’ve used on the bench in the last few games,” he said. England’s props had been playing “60, 70 minutes” every week for the last seven weeks “and a load like that will take its toll”. His props, he said, had been rotating, so were much fresher.
That is a matter of strategy and it was not Jones’s only error. In days ahead, he will surely come to regret his decision to pick only two scrum-halves in his squad because once he lost Willi Heinz, he was left with a replacement, Ben Spencer, who was coming into a World Cup final with six days’ preparation.
Cruel as it is to mention, Ben Youngs – one of England’s most experienced players – had his worst game of the tournament when it mattered most. But Jones did not feel able to bring Spencer on until the 75th minute, when the game had already come and gone.
There is little to be gained from pointing all that out now. It was a risk and it cost him. But it does not outweigh everything else he and his team have achieved these past few weeks. Besides, as Jones said, they still had their opportunities. Especially in the five minutes they spent hammering away at South Africa’s tryline late in the first half, when they came within inches of scoring the try they so badly needed. They gave everything then, as Billy and Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Maro Itoje and the rest of them threw themselves against the South Africa defence. But it still was not enough.
These are all the little details to be dealt with in the debrief. Really, England fell victim to one of the classic martial blunders. The most famous of these is “never get involved in a land war in Asia”, but only slightly less well known is this: never go in against the Springboks when the World Cup is on the line. Twenty-four years after they won their first World Cup final, 12 years after they won their second, they have won their third. In those three finals, they have not conceded a try. It is one of the most astonishing records in sport.
The difference, this time, is they were led by a kid from the townships. Kolisi said he did not dream about winning the World Cup when he was young, because he was too busy dreaming about where his next meal was coming from, a captain leading a team who had more to play for than the likes of you, and I, and Eddie Jones, and England, could possibly fathom.
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