Rugby World Cup 2019: Gatland jibe haunts ragged England as South Africa play their final

By Dom Farrell 2 November 2019 30
Rugby World Cup 2019: Gatland jibe haunts ragged England as South Africa play their final

Maro Itoje was named England's man of the match after their eviscerating 19-7 semi-final win over New Zealand. It was a crowded field for that particular honour but England's imperious lock touched perfection. Within three minutes of the 32-12 final defeat against South Africa, Itoje had inadvertently knocked a team-mate out cold. A missed catch from a restart 20 minutes later surrendered one of the England's brief periods of first-half parity.

Tom Curry was tenaciously terrific against the All Black, the 21-year-old underlining his status as one of this World Cup's breakout stars. Against the relentless Springboks, he was already finding the breakdown to be an entirely different proposition. When Itoje failed to claim, Curry knocked on. England then conceded a scrum penalty and Handre Pollard kicked the points, in what became a repeated narrative in Yokohama.

Ben Youngs was a frenetic metronome versus New Zealand, judiciously maintaining England's furious tempo. The team were unable to find any rhythm early on against South Africa – their attempts to avoid the Springbok arm wrestle amounting to haphazard windmilling. Given a chance to attack in the 11th minute, Youngs launched a howling pass over Anthony Watson's head and into touch.

George Ford's midfield combination with Owen Farrell has been the spark for all their best rugby under Eddie Jones. A footballer of immense skill and precision enjoying a fantastic tournament, Ford's most notable first-half contribution was a 27th-minute kick out on the full. He was replaced early in the second half.

Warren Gatland's mischievous words after his Wales team were edged out by South Africa in their semi seasoned this error-strewn stew.

"We have seen in previous World Cups that teams sometimes play their final in semi-finals and don't always turn up for a final," he said.

England undoubtedly left a peak they never troubled on Saturday, but not turning up suggests a team shrinking from the challenge and disappearing from view. All of England's toils, from errors with ball in hand to being obliterated at the set piece, came in plain sight. Only during a period of herculean Springbok defence after the half hour did they look something like the world's number one team.

Scrum half Faf de Klerk caught the eye as a yapping nuisance behind a formidable pack, although the introduction of South Africa's "Bomb Squad" replacement forwards did not turn the screw as expected, at least not initially.

The changing personnel after half-time coincided with the penalty count climbing. Referee Jerome Garces was a busy man as each passage played out on the borderline of fair and unfair. Owen Farrell and Handre Pollard stepped up to kick the points and we were moving in accelerated three-point bursts.

South Africa won their previous two World Cup finals without touching down. That arrangement would have suited the majestic Pollard and the Rainbow Nation roaring him on down to the ground.

Makazole Mapimpi had other ideas, popping a devilish kick over the England defence that Lukhanyo Am gathered smoothly. Two men hailing from South Africa's townships ensured another, Siya Kolisi would lift the Webb Ellis Cup – a triumph of symbolism and significance to arguably outstrip Nelson Mandela, Francois Pienaar, 1995 and all that. 

England were now a bedraggled, disconsolate rabble, barely recognisable from the team that brought the All Blacks to their knees as they wearily stooped to their own haunches. Cheslin Kolbe rubbed their noses in it with a delirious romp down the right wing. The Rugby Championship winners were world champions again, having made a total mockery of their pre-match underdog status.

As the trophy engraver got to work before full-time, it was a wonder South Africa did not score more points. Wearing the same number six as Pienaar and Mandela did 24 years ago, the inspirational Kolisi stood on the sidelines with no need to conceal his infectious smile. There could be no doubt when his supreme Springboks had played their final.

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Dom Farrell

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