Mako Vunipola England vs South Africa: The single passage of play that decided the Rugby World Cup final

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Rugby World Cup finals tend to be close affairs. This was a thorough out-classing, an out-muscling of the highest order. England were battered, bruised and beaten by one of the great defensive sides and forward packs of all time. South Africa emerged comfortable winners.

Forget the final score, the late scoring flurry – it was on the first-half defensive stand that this Rugby World Cup final victory was built.

For 26 phases South Africa held out, giving not an inch to England’s charges. Almost every one came under advantage – England had licence to play, a free shot to try something. Yet they could not find a way through. Time and again they forayed around the fringes, brows furrowed as they burrowed and battered on the door. It would not open.

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For all the talk of South Africa’s defensive structure in phase play, this was about raw muscle. Along the line the forwards assembled themselves for each thumping carry. They hunted in pairs, relying on dominant two-tackles to repel England’s heavier hitters, and going low on those who could shimmy. Concentrating not on shearing the ball back their way, they got their hands to the ball repeatedly to slow it just enough to stall England’s ball and allow the forwards to reorganise for the next phase.

Rassie Erasmus has built a forward phalanx of destructive hitters, gentlemen who take great pleasure in thumping ball-carriers. They all stood up to be counted in the final. There was not a player in green and gold who had a poor game. Duane Vermeulen was phenomenal. Pieter-Steph du Toit totemic. Malcolm Marx, off the bench in the first half for the injured Bongi Mbonambi, outstanding. The locking quartet, including the sadly stricken Lood de Jager, indomitable. This is a mighty England eight, one with pace and strength and skills. But they could not match the physical might of the Springboks, at the scrum, in the maul, and in open play.

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