Five things we learned from the Rugby World Cup final

Manner of South Africa’s win showed some of game's basics remain the same

(1) Scrums still matter
The game pivoted on the third-minute incident when Maro Itoje's elbow accidentally caught Kyle Sinckler, leaving Dan Cole 77 minutes against Tendai Matarawire (against whom he struggles) and Steven Kitshoff. The first of three three-pointers from scrums had as profound an effect as a try.

“I don’t want to sound very clever afterwards because that pisses a lot of people off. I just think it was a spin-off of the way we have played the last five games with a 6-2 split,” said Rassie Erasmus.

That player management, he said, “benefitted us a little bit fatigue-wise against the opposition at scrum time, because I don’t think Cole is a bad scrummager, or any of them. I just thought guys were maybe a little bit fresher, both packs, first half and second half.”

(2) Scoreboard pressure matters too
Maintaining the trend of the tournament, South Africa opened the scoring and were never headed before eventually pulling clear. Owen Farrell twice drew England level, it was for a total of just seven minutes, as the Boks and Handre Pollard kept the scoreboard ticking over.


Similarly, the Boks led from the start in the semis against Wales, who drew level three times but never inched in front. England had a fast start against the All Blacks and led from the second minute.

Ditto the All Blacks against Ireland in the quarter-finals, while England scored the first try in the 18th minute against and led thereafter, as did the Boks against Japan. The only real ‘comeback’ was by Wales against France, the least equipped team to defend a lead and who imploded following Sebastien Vahaamahina’s red card.

(3) Defences win championships
So goes the modern saying, coined by Shaun Edwards, and when it comes to World Cups it was again true in 2019. In the semi-final, the Boks restricted Wales to just 192 metres carried, the lowest by any team in one match. They limited England to 201 metres, from 123 carries, and just two line breaks (the Boks made 11). By the end, England had been completely blunted.

The Boks have conceded only one try (against Canada) since the All Blacks two tries in their opening game, and none in the knock-out stages. Jacques Nienaber, set to succeed Rassie Erasmus, has had a good tournament.

(4)Backing up is hard to do
Maintaining another trend, England reached an undoubted high with that compelling and complete performance against the All Blacks, but couldn't scale those heights a week later.

All week Eddie Jones had repeated the mantra that England can “definitely play better”, but, akin to a golfer who shoots a 61 in the opening round, you can be sure he won’t shoot the same score in round two. A 68 or 69 might have done it but after bogeying the first they became error prone under pressure.

It was a similar story for the All Blacks against England, after their brilliant dissection of Ireland, who themselves dominated Scotland but six days later fell flat against Japan.

Even Japan, a week after their epic win over Scotland, were a little deflated against South Africa.

Helpfully for the Boks, the scheduling never asked them to do so, and they reserved their big performance until the final.

(5)The Springboks had a gifted playmaker after all
Lukhanyo Am's skills and vision had been largely kept under wraps until the final. Receiving the ball just four times against Wales, he made one clean line break, beat one defender and made one of their only two offloads in the game.

With nine touches in the final, he carried for 56 metres, made three (the most by anyone in the match) of their 11 clean breaks, beat three defenders, had one offload and had one of the try assists of the tournament.

Am’s awareness, skills and unselfishness were demonstrated when gathering Makazole Mapimpi’s chip and quick-wittedly immediately pulled the ball back across his body to give Mapimpi the touchdown. The Springboks’ tradition demands a big carrier at 12, ala Damian de Allende, but they could make more of Am, who looks a gem.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times