South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus might have been criticised for his team's “boring” gameplan going into the Rugby World Cup final, but his side delivered perfectly with a dominant 32-12 victory over England on Saturday.
In victory, the Springboks demonstrated a perfect mix of brutal pragmatism and electric finishing based around an all-important dominant set-piece and kicking machines Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard.
“We believe South Africans never give up and that makes me very proud,” said Erasmus.
A kickfest had been predicted for the final and — two blistering second-half tries from Bok wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe aside — so it proved as Pollard and Owen Farrell traded penalties early on.
But there was no lack of bite in a hard-hitting contest of gladiatorial standards that left the players bloodied and bruised in a shocking advert for the attritional quality of Test match rugby.
Even after six weeks of competition, there was no holding back from the two teams that have prided themselves on their physically confrontational styles of play.
England prop Kyle Sinckler went off after just three minutes, left prone after hitting his head in a tackle.
“It's part of the game,” said England coach Eddie Jones. “I can't doubt the effort of my players, they were extraordinary. We just came up short today.”
There was a double blow in the 22nd minute for the Boks when lock Lood De Jager departed with a shoulder injury and hooker Mbongeni Mbonambi was replaced as he underwent a Head Injury Assessment following a tackle on Courtney Lawes.
A key point came halfway through the first-half when wave after wave of brutal English attack was repelled, the Herculean Boks left panting on their line through exertion.
England lock Maro Itoje then flattened Duane Vermeulen and Damian de Allende, the sound of the two sickening impacts clearly audible from the stands with renditions of English rugby anthem “Swing Low” interrupted by gasps as the crowd visibly squirmed in their seats.
The raucous spectacle, opened by loud Japanese drumming and flames shooting into the evening sky, was how one might imagine a battle in a Roman amphitheatre.
Flamethrowers erupted every time a penalty went over, fans baying with delight when an Itoje or Vermeulen threw themselves, seemingly with reckless abandon, into another tackle or drive forward.
The on-field attrition also came in the set-piece, as the Boks turned the screw at scrum-time, Sinckler's replacement Dan Cole struggling badly to cope with veteran Tendai Mtawarira.
Erasmus credited his side's scrum dominance to his use of a split of six forwards and two backs on the replacements' bench, meaning all his props had played a similar amount of minutes over the duration of the World Cup.
“It's player management that has benefitted us, fatigue-wise,” Erasmus said. “Our guys were maybe a little bit fresher.”
The half-time talk was simple, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi added: “Keep on being physical and going straight out in the scrums.”
The second-half started just as the first ended, flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit — one of the nominees for World Player of the Year — put in two thumping tackles in quick succession on George Ford.
Kolisi, named as the country's first black skipper by Erasmus last year, was omnipresent in a back-row in which man-of-the-match Vermeulen also outshone England's vaunted “kamikaze kids” pairing of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.
De Klerk and Pollard kept England pinned back and the pressure continued to mount.
And after all the grind, it was fitting that two of the most exciting players at the World Cup, Bok wingers Makazole and Kolbe, scored a try apiece, justifying the team's total belief in and execution of the no-nonsense gameplan devised by Erasmus.
Kolisi credited “honest” Erasmus with having changed South African squad's mindset, the coach instilling in them the fact that “Springboks are more important that personal goals”.
“We want to say thank you to the coach who came in and changed a lot, the way we saw rugby.”
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