World Cup Final: England v South Africa
Kick-off: 9am Irish time, Saturday. Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog begins at 8.30am. On TV: Live on RTÉ, Eir Sport and ITV.
And so after 46 matches at this World Cup, and in the case of Eddie Jones and England four years in the planning or a mere a year and a half for Rassie Erasmus and South Africa, it comes down to this.
History has taught us that when it is all distilled into the last game, the team who have been the steadier ship over a World Cup cycle tend to beat those who have had to seek a shorter-term fix.
Think the All Blacks over Australia four years ago, the Springboks against England in 2007, England over Australia in 2003 and so on.
But history has also shown us that finals – and this is not unique to rugby – tend to be tight, taut affairs, with New Zealand’s 34-17 win four years ago bucking the trend as the highest scoring final to date.
In 2011 the All Blacks scraped over the line by 8-7 against France. Ominously, the Boks’ 15-6 win over England in 2007 was tryless, as was their 15-12 victory against New Zealand in 1995. There was one try when Australia beat England 12-6 in 1999.
Of course, come the final winning is everything. Neither team will care a jot how they get over the line in making history, although the overall meaning is not Jones’s primary concern.
Exuding quiet confidence, he said: “It’s all about preparation. If you’re well prepared for the game you can play without any fear, and that’s the great thing for us.
“Physically they’ve done their work. They know tactically how they want to play against South Africa. Emotionally they’re tight as a group. So that gives them the opportunity to play without any fear. They’re not worried about things, they can go out there and play their game.
“The only thing I have to worry about is preparing the team tomorrow. That’s the only thing I have to worry about. I don’t have to worry about history because I’m not an historian. So I just do my job, mate.”
He’s been doing it damned well. Retaining a core of the side he inherited but cleverly and slightly remodelling it, Jones appears to have England perfectly primed while keeping the outside noise just that – on the periphery.
If Thursday’s audience with him and their spiritual leader-cum-warrior, Owen Farrell, is a barometer they appear determined to play in the moment, embrace the enormous occasion for what it is without being overwhelmed by it, and his mantra for the day – playing without fear.
Not that Jones doesn’t fully appreciate that this final, as much as any game, will be first and foremost a physical fight, a war of attrition in every collision across the gain line. The Springboks, with their monumental pack, a 6-2 split on the bench and trademark aerial bombardment, will ensure as much. There will be no avoiding the arm wrestle at some junctures.
“Well, there are times you have to in every game,” said Jones. “Every game has got what they talk about as an arm wrestle in it, but I think we’ve got the ability to break that arm wrestle, and we’ve definitely got the skills and the confidence to then be able to execute when we get the opportunities.”
And therein lies the rub. South Africa's Handre Pollard has been unerring off the tee with any kick from inside half way. If the Springboks can keep it largely to a place-kicking contest and to within a score before Erasmus starts unloading the dynamic Malcolm Marx, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert and Francois Louw, and the power and offloading of RG Snyman, then they have every chance.
The more England can apply their skills, width and vision, the more fluid they and the game becomes, the better their chances.
More than any team at this World Cup they also have the physicality in players Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, the remarkable kamikaze twins 21-year-old Tom Curry and 23-year-old Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi to match the Boks' power game.
England also have way more passing and kicking inventiveness in their dual playmakers George Ford (who is in the form of his life) and Farrell, and from Elliot Daly at full-back, whereas the under-used Willie le Roux has looked off colour all tournament.
Faf de Klerk and Pollard, who prefers to play in the pocket, are happiest when launching bombs. Their midfielders are big straight runners too, although the return of the always dangerous Cheslin Kolbe gives the Boks a real cutting edge in tandem with Makazole Mapimpi, who has scored five tries in this tournament.
The general feeling is that if England reproduced the completeness of their performance against the All Blacks then ultimately the Springboks won’t be able to live with them. And it’s hard to dispute that. They have scaled heights which South Africa have not come near.
England have assuredly been helped by the cancellation of their final game against France, but against that the Boks benefitted from losing their opener in having the far easier half of the draw.
Simply on a line through the All Blacks, England should be 22-point favourites, not five. Of course, it doesn’t work out like that. Either way, Jones has been adamant that England can play better again, but then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
It will be some achievement if they did, though, and they would really put daylight between them and the Boks.
Most likely they won’t scale those heights again, and most likely they won’t need to. England have scored at least one try in the opening 10 minutes of nine of their 14 tests this season, and if they strike first the Boks look less equipped to play catch-up, but, with conditions, it probably would make for a more entertaining spectacle.
Four years ago England made an ignominious exit at the pool stages as hosts, before the Rugby Championship quartet turned the semi-finals onwards into a Southern Hemisphere shoot-out for the first time in World Cup history.
Four years on, and England are set to complete a four wins in a row over the aforementioned quartet, culminating with the recently crowned Rugby Championship winners. Now that really would be an historical achievement unlikely to ever be repeated.
As with that brilliant English team in 2003, destiny seems to be calling them again.
ENGLAND: Elliot Daly; Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (capt), Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes; Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Marler, Dan Cole, George Kruis, Mark Wilson, Ben Spencer, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph.
SOUTH AFRICA: Willie Le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Tendai Mtawarira, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe; Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager; Siya Kolisi (capt), Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).
Overall head-to-head: Played 42. England 15 wins. 2 Draws. South Africa 25 wins.
Past World Cup meetings: (1999, q/f) South Africa 24 England 21. (2003, pool) England 25 South Africa 6. (2007, pool) South Africa 36 England 0. (2007, final) South Africa 15 England 6.
Leading try scorers: England – Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Luke Cowan-Dickie 3 each. South Africa – Mapimpi 5, Mbonambi, Cobus Reinach 3 each.
Leading points scorers: England – Owen Farrell 46. South Africa – Handre Pollard 47.
Betting 8/15 England, 22/1 Draw, 7/4 South Africa. Handicap odds (South Africa + 5pts) Evens England, 16/1 Draw, Evens South Africa .
Forecast: England to win.