Another Rugby World Cup triumph, another iconic moment for South Africa
Written by Femi Akintola on November 4, 2019
YOKOHAMA — They started carving South Africa’s name into the Webb Ellis Cup with five minutes of the match remaining. This was as destructive a performance as you’ll ever see in the sport as South Africa suffocated and out-muscled England to win their third Rugby World Cup.
The true impact of this World Cup win for the Springboks and South Africa will only be quantifiable in time, but as Siya Kolisi lifted the Webb Ellis Cup into the Yokohama night sky, it capped one of the most remarkable sporting changes of form and fate in living memory.
Eighteen months ago, the Boks were sixth in the world and tonight, as those in green and gold cried, stared and roared in wonderful disbelieving ecstasy, Rassie Erasmus’ side hammered England 32-12 to cement their spot at the top of the rankings. As the podium was being built, the chant of ‘Rassie, Rassie’ came from the stands as the Class of 2019 joined those Springboks immortals from 2007 and 1995.
The historical merged with the present when Francois Pienaar, the 1995 captain, punched the air as Cheslin Kolbe danced past the prone Owen Farrell to score the try that was the championship-winning, definitive slam of the arm-wrestle. The Boks out-muscled and outplayed England, outscoring them two tries to nil in a win built on power over prowess.
South Africa have been unapologetic about their physical, route one style of rugby in this World Cup, and why shouldn’t they be? It’s proven to be the right cocktail to win the sport’s biggest prize in the past, too. Duane Vermeulen was immense as he steered a scrum that won six penalties to suffocate England and leave them heartbroken in a match they entered as favourites.
But make no mistake — England did not lose this match; the Springboks won it.
England threw absolutely everything at the Boks but found no way through the impenetrable wall, moulded by the Springboks’ mastermind Jacques Nienaber. There will be statues built of this team, but get that man to carve it — this defensive system was a masterpiece painted on granite. England did their best to force the same sort of openings they enjoyed against New Zealand, but the Boks’ defence was unrelenting and never once lost focus or offered an opportunity.
During the week, Erasmus said they would not alter their style or method of grinding out victories. They had seen off Wales 19-16 in the semifinal, and Erasmus even went as far as confirming they’d stick with the tried-and-tested for the final far earlier in the week than usual. They were confident in their system — one anchored around territory, forcing penalties and capitalising on mistakes.
Vermeulen was exceptional at No. 8 for the Boks, while Tendai Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe handed out all sorts of punishment in the scrum, a trend Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch continued. England were desperately unlucky to lose Kyle Sinckler after just three minutes due to a head knock. It unsettled them and the Boks took full advantage, winning five first-half penalties. This was a winning platform, giving them a 12-6 halftime lead, a spell which even saw them lose starting hooker Mbongeni Mbonambi and Lood De Jager to injury but which did not halt their bulldozing defence pushing England back.
As England continued to throw everything at the Springboks, referee Jerome Garces’ arm kept on reaching in the South Africans’ direction to award them penalties and England found themselves with a Sisyphean task. Handre Pollard finished with 22 points and their two wonderfully executed tries from Mapimpi — thanks to a gorgeous pass from Lukhanyo Am — and the brilliant Kolbe smashed the final nails home on this utterly brilliant work from Erasmus and his backroom staff.
There will now be no parade on Tuesday for England, but they can head back with pride restored. They were the youngest team ever in a World Cup final and will have their time again. England head coach Eddie Jones was the last to pick up the silver medal; he put it in his pocket. He will only look at it again in a quiet moment, but only after he departs England. He has a contract until 2021 — you imagine the RFU is readying the cheque book to keep him through to France 2023. “We’re kicking stones for the next four years” was Jones’ take on the pain the team will be feeling. As the 2015 crop know, pain can be the most powerful motivator and this team will have another shot at the World Cup.
But tonight and the next four years are South Africa’s. They have built a World Cup-winning side in the space of 18 months and brought pride back to the jersey. As the great Nelson Mandela once said, “sport has the power to change the world… sport can create hope where once there was despair,” and the Boks have frequently given their own figurative nod to this in the past week as they referenced the positive change a World Cup can bring to the country.
“It was my first World Cup as a coach and the first All Blacks game was a great test ground for us handling pressure,” said Erasmus, referencing their opening-weekend defeat by the defending champions in the pool phase. “We were terrible that week, we were tense and it was a terrible build up and that taught us how to handle the quarterfinal and semi.” It also makes South Africa the first team to win a World Cup having lost a match during the tournament. It brought perspective.
Jones: England only worried about having a few beers
Eddie Jones gives a lighthearted response to how England will deal with their Rugby World Cup final defeat.
“In South Africa [pressure] is not having a job, having a close relative who is murdered,” added Erasmus. “Rugby should not create pressure, it should create hope. We have a privilege, not a burden.
“Hope is when you play well and people watch the game and have a nice braai [barbecue] and watch the game and no matter of political or religious difference for those 80 minutes, you agree when you usually disagree. That is our privilege and that was the way we tackled it.”
Whether this triumph will have a larger impact than the Mandela moment back in 1995 when he wore Pienaar’s jersey and handed the trophy to the main man, only time will tell. That generation and the 2007 immortals all predict the sight of Kolisi, South Africa’s first black captain, holding the trophy aloft will have an impact of unfathomable proportions and there are few more inspirational figures in the game than the Boks’ captain.
“We have so many problems in our country, a team like this — we come from different backgrounds, different races — and we came together with one goal,” Kolisi said, as the sweat and emotion merged into one beaming smile. “I really hope we have done that for South Africa, to show that we can pull together if we want to achieve something.”
World Cups are never won by the ‘wrong team.’ The eventual champion deserves every accolade. And in the most memorable of World Cups, this was a win for an entire country and the start of a remarkable legacy of a triumph built on pride, passion, trust and the power of 56 million people united behind one team. That, and one unbelievable defence.