Here we are at the final stage of what has been a wonderful World Cup, made so by the Japanese hosting of the occasion as much as – or possibly more so than – the quality of Rugby on show.
Before we get to the main event, the ultimate showpiece for our sport, we must first address the Bronze final, the match nobody wants to play in.
Wales v New Zealand
I fear that this is going to be a disaster for Wales. Weary and beset by a raft of injuries, Warren Gatland has selected some players as the ‘last ones standing’ in his squad, as they take to the field against the All Blacks.
Having ridden their luck to some extent, never playing particularly convincingly but merely pointing to the results as they kept on winning, it feels a little as though the bubble has burst as Gatland prepares to leave his role.
Where Wales have brought in the likes of Hallam Amos, Owen Lane and Adam Beard, New Zealand have been able to call on Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill-Williams and Rieko Ioane. It’s arguably a stronger team than that picked for the semi-final against England, given the experience that some of those players will bring, and I think they are going to run riot.
New Zealand by 28
England v South Africa
What a brilliant prospect for the final, and we’re guaranteed a different winner of the tournament for the first time in 12 years – and in fact, this is a repeat of that final 12 years ago, won 15-6 by the Springboks in Paris.
But this time, England start as favourites after THAT performance against the All Blacks last weekend, and having warmed up by dispatching Argentina, Australia and New Zealand in their last three fixtures. By contrast, South Africa has faced Canada, Japan and Wales en route to the final, and you can only play what’s in front of you, of course, but some people believe that a battle-hardened team would stand a better chance at the business end of the tournament.
The Springboks have been one-dimensional so far, playing to their traditional strengths with a monstrous pack and an excellent kick-chase game. It’s not dissimilar to the style of play that saw them lift the trophy in 2007, but up against Eddie Jones’ England, you wonder if it will be enough.
You also wonder if there’s not something else being held in reserve, such has been the Springboks’ relatively straightforward route to the final. Is there a gameplan stashed away by Rassie Erasmus for when they really need it? Playing a simple game is enough to beat a plucky Japan and a depleted Wales in the knockout stages, so why not keep something in reserve for the final?
South African fans will certainly be hoping so, because England won’t be intimidated by the physical confrontation, they have their own outstanding defence, and enough firepower to launch a counter-attack or two from any poor kicking from hand. Neutrals might be hoping so too, because nobody wants to see a repeat of that second semi-final last Sunday.
Frankly, if England come anywhere near replicating their all-court performance from last weekend, they will lift the trophy. There are plenty of ball-carriers up front, and more ball-players than in previous England sides, whilst out wide the twin playmakers execute a smart kicking strategy without being afraid to run the ball if the opportunity arises. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry have formed an effective partnership in the back row, delivering the quick ball on which fly-half George Ford can thrive.
If South Africa can compete at the breakdown, slow down England’s possession and force the pack into reverse gear, they’ll put pressure on Ford and might well gain the upper hand. But South Africa’s back row won’t be as effective in the loose as Underhill and Curry, with Francois Louw only making the bench for the Springboks, and I think the game will be won here.
As I said in my article before the semi-final, we know England have a huge game in them, but we haven’t seen it consistently enough to expect it regularly, and perhaps it’s only that sense of the unexpected that has caught out Ireland and New Zealand this year.
But the Rugby World Cup climax seems like as good a time as any to dig deep and pull out your best performance, and I’m backing Eddie Jones to prepare his team to do just that. I suspect they’ll get their noses in front, kick their goals and rely on their defence to see things out.
England by 8
Let me know what you think! I am actually going to South Africa next week, so if the Springboks win, I’ll buy a green jersey and share a photo.