By Nick Mulvenney
TOKYO (Reuters) – England will rightly be favourites to win Saturday’s World Cup final after dethroning the All Blacks last weekend but they are likely to have to pull another big performance out of the bag to prevent South Africa from securing a third crown.
The intensity of England’s performance in the 19-7 victory over double defending champions New Zealand last Saturday will be mighty tough to replicate in any case, but if any team could resist the onslaught, it is probably the doughty Springboks.
The hope of the thousands of England fans pouring into the Tokyo area for the match, though, is that Australian supercoach Eddie Jones might have a few more tricks up his sleeve for the return to Yokohama International Stadium on Saturday.
South Africa, by contrast, are unlikely to stray very far from the tried and tested pressure game that allowed them to bludgeon their way past Wales under a bombardment of high balls in the second semi-final last weekend.
Rassie Erasmus does have plenty of star quality in his backline – not least in the dancing feet of winger Cheslin Kolbe who returns after injury in the only change to the side that beat the Welsh – but pragmatism is very much the watchword.
The biggest pack in the tournament will look to constrain, harass, harry and wear down the English before another six leviathan forwards – the ‘bomb squad’ – come off the bench to try and finish the job.
Halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard will try to slow the pace of the game as they did against the effervescent Japan in the quarter-finals, with the latter ready punish any English ill-discipline from the kicking tee.
No team has ever won the World Cup after losing a pool match, as the Springboks did in their tournament opener against the All Blacks, but South Africa have also never lost a final, including the 2007 title-decider against England.
Having beaten Australia in the quarter-finals, England will need to complete an unprecedented sweep of victories over the three southern hemisphere superpowers in successive weeks to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time.
That would be a considerable achievement in itself but Jones, who was able to name the same starting line-up as that which won the semi-final, has raised expectations so high that it would no longer be considered a surprise.
Jones says he has been preparing for Saturday’s match since he took over as coach four years ago in the wake of England’s humiliating pool-stage exit from their own World Cup and the work is evident in his team.
The pack, featuring standout lock Maro Itoje, the bulldozing Vunipola brothers and “Kamikaze Kid” flankers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, believe themselves the equal of any eight and there is plenty of quality among the “finishers” on the bench too.
In George Ford and Owen Farrell, England have two top quality place-kickers and world class playmakers, while wingers Anthony Watson and Jonny May have proved themselves to be the match for any outside backs at the tournament.
South Africa might have finished third at the World Cup in England four years ago but they too have endured humiliation over the last few seasons, not least when they lost eight of 12 tests in 2016.
Erasmus has managed to turn things around in remarkable fashion since he took over two years ago and his multi-racial, multi-lingual side have looked supremely confident and eminently comfortable in themselves and their game at this World Cup.
Jones has twice before masterminded stunning upsets at the World Cup – Australia beating the All Blacks in the 2003 semi-finals and Japan downing the Springboks in 2015 – only for his team to lose their next match.
His Wallabies came pretty close to backing up 16 years ago, however, with Clive Woodward’s England needing extra time and a last-minute Jonny Wilkinson drop goal to secure their maiden title at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.
World Cup finals are rarely expansive affairs and it would be no great surprise if it took something similarly dramatic to decide the champions of the ninth edition of rugby’s showpiece tournament.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Toby Davis)