Going into yesterday’s Rugby World Cup final at Tokyo Stadium, it was acknowledged that the Springboks would have to overcome their underdog status and make history to lift their third Webb Ellis Cup.
Opponents England had installed themselves as firm favourites by outplaying defending champions New Zealand to the point where they looked clueless in last week’s semifinal, and the Boks had taken the low road to attempt to win it by losing a game in the group stages – something no team had done before.
Not only did Johan “Rassie” Erasmus’ men defy history, they created their own. In drawing level with perennial rivals New Zealand in winning the World Cup three times, the Boks also became the only team to win the Rugby Championship and the global showpiece in the same year.
As an internal aside, utility back Frans Steyn – the multipositional player so integral to Erasmus’ six-two split on the bench – became only the second South African (since Os du Randt) to be part of two World Cup-winning teams.
The foundation for an ultimately comprehensive win lay in a big pack of forwards with nothing but bad intentions, a defence as desperate as it was belligerent, 22 points from a nearly flawless kicking performance by fly half Handré Pollard, and Erasmus hoodwinking opposite number Eddie Jones by allowing his players to run the ball for the first time in three weeks.
The Springbok forwards unsettled England’s with their desire and an otherworldly intensity that made it look as though they were playing more for their lives than they were for a “mere” cup.
A scrum that has laid waste to many a challenge throughout the tournament located the reverse gear in England as early as the third minute; that facet of the game returning no less than five penalties – three of them kicked by Pollard.
In keeping with the relentless, controlled aggression theme, the Bok line-out put untold pressure on their counterparts – the first half injuries to hooker Bongi Mbonambi and lock Lood de Jager vindicating Erasmus’ six-two split call as they lost nothing in the withdrawals.
If the Bok forwards unhinged the platform from which England’s polished performance against New Zealand was launched, a swarming defence robbed them of the time they’d been afforded by the All Blacks.
A particularly telling moment was a sequence around the 30th minute when England had the ball in hand for a good four minutes and still failed to cross the try line.
During that estimated 30 phases, each of England’s designated ball carriers – Mako Vunipola and his brother Billy, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May and Anthony Watson – all took turns getting driven back or getting lumps taken out of them with frighteningly big hits.
The players driving this utter decimation of England were prop Beast Mtawarira, Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi up front, and Pollard, Lukhanyo Am, and wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, who both scored the only tries of the match, out wide.
Mtawarira was first to put the English scrum off its axis; Etzebeth contested and defended with typical aggression; captain Kolisi led by putting his body on the line; while hard-carrying and tough-tackling man of the match Vermeulen was the bristling, cauliflowered embodiment of the Bok pack’s aggression.
After missing the first penalty of the game in the first minute, Pollard did not miss the next eight kicks. Am showed the world what the fuss around him is all about with a no-look pass so insouciant it almost told a story of the Boks’ rampant confidence than it assisted Mapimpi’s 67th-minute try.
And for a country that saw the death of 1995 wingers Chester Williams and James Small this year, Mapimpi and Kolbe both scoring in the final – the former the first Bok try in a World Cup final – was somewhat poignant.
Having taken over coaching the Boks just 18 months ago, Erasmus showed his genius by outcoaching Jones and his assistant John Mitchell, who are more experienced men with incredible insights into South African rugby, thanks to various roles in it.
But this moment belongs to Erasmus and Kolisi’s men – and to us.