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South Africa’s Faf de Klerk and England’s Ben Youngs. England play South Africa in the Japan 2019… [+]
England vs South Africa felt like the least likely combination of finalists ahead of the semi-finals. It was hard to see New Zealand losing but should England reach the final it felt destined that they would be pitched against the fierce old rivals of Wales. The All Blacks versus the Springboks also had a certain air of pre-destination, if only because the organizers may have hoped that the big game of the opening weekend would be given a re-run on the last night of the tournament.
But, here we are with England vs South Africa. England somewhat surprisingly comprehensively outplaying New Zealand. Once again it seemed that the All Blacks, so fabulous when dictating proceedings, did not quite know what to do when facing a match they weren’t prepared for against opponents who showed no fear and little respect. It almost felt as if England had outmaneuvered the All Blacks from the moment they showed their V-shaped response to the Haka – as if encircling and ensnaring New Zealand’s spirit.
New Zealand’s triumphs at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups seemed to have buried the belief that the All Blacks had a mental block over the tournament that every four years sees them installed as favorites before succumbing to rivals who peaked at just the right time. Now the Kiwis will face another period of introspection and self-doubt.
The South Africans have rarely seemed fluent during this tournament and were beaten in their opening match – albeit against the All Blacks. But they have been grinding out the results with the air of a team on a mission. The weathered the Japanese storm in the quarter-final and just outlived Wales in the semi.
Now they are set for a rematch of the 2007 World Cup final in Paris, where South Africa claimed the trophy with little difficulty. Then jt was England who were fortuitous to have reached the final. In that edition of the World Cup the South Africans decimated England 36-0 in the group stage before winning more comfortably than 15-6 would suggest in the final in Paris.
Frans Steyn – the sole survivor in either side from the 2007 World Cup final in Paris – said he was enjoying this week more than he did 12 years ago: “I was young then and thought there would be another opportunity. Now I know this is my last one and you have to make it count. You only have to look at 2007 to know what a final is about. We had beaten England in the group stage and they had problems in their camp, but they gave us a very close game. It is just about winning, not by how much.”
At this World Cup South Africa strolled through the group stage after that reverse to the All Blacks, crushing the minnows of Namibia, Canada and Italy. But in the big games, against tougher opponents, it has been much more brutal and clinical. South Africa’s back line have scarcely seen the ball as the forwards battered their opponents into submission. The ball has barely reached even Handré Pollard at fly-half with blond scrum half Faf de Klerk box kicking at every opportunity.
Pollard has, however, been deadly when kicking for goal, slotting between the posts at all four penalty and one conversion attempt in th
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