Rugby

Springboks keeping eyes on prize ahead of RWC final

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

South Africa’s Rugby World Cup players know how much lifting the trophy for a third time on Saturday would mean to their country — but they are looking no further than final opponent England.

“I definitely think it will have a massive impact,” Springboks lock Lood de Jager said Wednesday. “But we can’t get caught up in that now. For us, it’s 80 minutes against a world-class team that we need to get through on Saturday and hopefully come out on top. And then after that, yes, everything after that will be special. But for us at the moment, it’s about preparing as well as we can to play against a very, very good England side on Saturday and hopefully beat them.”

South Africa will face England at International Stadium Yokohama with the chance to add to the World Cup titles it won on home soil in 1995 and in Paris in 2007, having edged Wales 19-16 in Sunday’s semifinal.

England was also the Springboks’ opponent the last time they lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, but after watching the northern hemisphere side dismantle two-time defending champion New Zealand 19-7 in Saturday’s semifinal, South Africa forwards coach Matt Proudfoot is taking nothing for granted.

“I think it’s going to be very tight between the two sides,” said Proudfoot. “They were very efficient and very powerful against New Zealand, and probably the trendsetters. So for us to match that intensity is something we’ve spoken about. They’ve been really good. I don’t think it was just brute force. There was a lot of intelligent play, very effective play from their pack. I was very impressed with what I saw, so I think it’s going to be a great challenge for us to meet that.”

Much credit for South Africa’s run to the final has gone to head coach Rassie Erasmus, who took over in March last year with the team suffering a dismal run of form. The Springboks finished third at the 2015 Rugby World Cup but then went on to win only 11 of their next 25 test matches, including a first-ever loss to Italy and a record 57-0 defeat to New Zealand.

Erasmus has revived the Springboks fortunes to the extent that they are now only one win away from claiming rugby’s ultimate prize, and prop Tendai Mtawarira thinks the coach has brought an honesty to the squad that many of his predecessors were lacking.

“Rassie is a really good coach,” said Mtawarira, who will win his 117th cap in Saturday’s final. “He has come in and changed a lot of things, and one thing is that we don’t want to not address certain things before a game. So we have to go through certain scenarios that we’re going to face, like pressure moments in a game beforehand, and we always chat about what we’re going to do in those moments.

“He’s very honest. He says it as it is, and that’s one thing I’ve never had before with most Springbok coaches. So that’s one thing I really appreciate of him. It’s a reason why the players really respect him.”

Erasmus is set to name his team for the final on Thursday morning, with winger Cheslin Kolbe available again after missing the semifinal through injury.

England head coach Eddie Jones is also set to name his team Thursday, and many of the names will be familiar to the players in the Springboks’ lineup. De Jager and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk are teammates with England’s Tom Curry at club side Sale Sharks, while Springbok prop Vincent Koch will also have the inside track, having played for English side Saracens since 2016.

“There are quite a lot of Saracens players in their team, and as we look at them, we can see a lot of similarities,” said Koch. “But the thing is, our focus is mainly on us. We know what they’re going to bring, and if it’s the Sarries way or the England way, we just need to match that. There are a few things that we saw that Saracens does that we can manage, if it’s England. But I think we’re ready for that. Different jerseys but similar game plans.”

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi will win his 50th cap in the final, and will follow in the footsteps of former World Cup-winning Springbok skippers Francois Pienaar and John Smit if he lifts the trophy.

Kolisi became the first black player to captain South Africa in a test match when Erasmus appointed him in May last year, and Mtawarira paid tribute to his contribution both on and off the pitch.

“What he has achieved is remarkable,” Mtawarira said of the 28-year-old Kolisi. “For a young kid from Zwide township in Port Elizabeth to rise above his circumstances and become a Springbok captain, and lead the way he has, has been inspirational to all South Africans from all walks of life. We’re all proud of him, and we ultimately want to make it very special for him on Saturday.”