Despite the 36-point debacle five weeks ago, Brian Ashton’s men have the opportunity to make history on Saturday. It’s easier said than done, but here is my view on the areas they should concentrate on to avenge that defeat.
The gameplan for Phil Vickery’s team will be to play rugby in South Africa’s half so that Jonny Wilkinson can take the points whenever they are available – it’s not boring! – whilst preventing Percy Montgomery and Francois Steyn knocking the ball over from anywhere within England’s half. That means the forwards must dominate and Wilkinson and Catt must be deadly accurate.
England must continue to destroy the opposition at the set-piece as they did against France and Australia. South Africa’s boast two of the world’s best lineout jumpers in Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, but Simon Shaw has been immense and will look to spoil Springbok ball. In the scrum, it will not be as easy for the front row against the solid CJ van der Linde and Os du Randt, but neither are devastating scrummagers and if Andrew Sheridan et al can create a platform, Jonny will be able to dictate field position.
The kicking game from Wilkinson and Mike Catt will therefore need to be first class, and this was the most painful area for England in the group game against the Springboks. They’ll need to kick into space and have two or three chasers closing down South Africa’s back three, preventing them wherever possible from getting distance on their kicks, and not even giving the opportunity to run it back.
The back row will need to be ruthless at the tackle area, but Schalk Burger and Juan Smith will be more aggressive in looking for turnover ball than anyone else England have faced. Lewis Moody needs to be his usual mental self and not give anything away, with Nick Easter and Martin Corry close behind him to the breakdown. If South Africa win too much turnover ball, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana will hurt England.
In defence, the English pack must get three or four men to the breakdown to compete for the ball. A few early turnovers in England’s favour, and they could build a score.
South Africa were not hugely creative in attack against Argentina in the semi-final, but they did not need to be – they just pounced on the numerous mistakes made by the Pumas. If England make as many errors as they did in the 2003 final, they will get beaten. Their experience on the biggest stage of all should work in their favour, whilst the Springboks may feel the burden of expectation and wilt in the spotlight.
England should put pressure on Butch James and Francois Steyn – both of whom can be prone to the odd mistake – and be sure to pile on the points given any opportunity.
The Springboks are beatable, regardless of what Jake White says about winning being their destiny – it would be a surprise if England retain the Web Ellis Cup, but this tournament has been full of them.
By James Hutchison