England and South Africa set for epic Rugby World Cup showdown

by Andrew McKirdy


England and South Africa’s players are looking to keep a lid on their emotions going into Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final, with both teams aware they are only one win away from rugby immortality.

“It’s all about how you channel it,” South Africa captain Siya Kolisi said Friday, one day ahead of the ninth Rugby World Cup final, which will kick off at 6 p.m. at International Stadium Yokohama.

“It’s not another game. It’s the World Cup final. Not many people can get this opportunity and we know that as a team. The emotions are high but we’re just going to have to channel it in the right way.”

South Africa is looking to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time, having won it on home soil in 1995 and in France in 2007, while England is aiming to add to its solitary triumph in Australia in 2003.

England will start the game as the marginal favorite thanks largely to its hugely impressive 19-7 semifinal win over New Zealand last weekend, with fans hoping that head coach Eddie Jones can come up with another tactical master plan to stifle the Springboks.

England flanker Sam Underhill said Friday that beating the All Blacks has given the players increased belief that they can go all the way and claim the title, but the 23-year-old also praised Jones for keeping things simple in the buildup to the final.

“Eddie’s been brilliant,” said Underhill. “He’s a coach who makes life as simple as it can be for the players. He doesn’t overcomplicate things, which as a player is all you can really ask for. Especially when you get to the stage where you’re in knockout games, you’ve got more nerves, excitement, anticipation, you’ve got a lot of emotions.

“All you really want to do is find something to focus on. Your process of what’s been going well so far. Eddie’s been brilliant in that respect, because he doesn’t give you too much to think about. You can go out and focus on the small things and get them right. That all builds as part of the bigger picture.”

South Africa edged Wales 19-16 in the second semifinal, with standoff Handre Pollard landing the decisive blow with a penalty four minutes from time.

Pollard said Friday that the final could come down to similarly fine margins, but he vowed to stand up and take responsibility should the onus fall on his shoulders again.

“That’s why you train, that’s why you put in the hours,” said Pollard, who scored 14 of South Africa’s 19 points in the semifinal. “If you imagine, from being a little boy in the back yard, you’re thinking to yourself ‘this kick is for the World Cup final.’ All of those scenarios. You’ve basically been preparing your whole life for it.

“There’s going to be pressure and it’s going to be tough, but embrace it. Enjoy it. It’s not just the kicking but the whole game. There’s going to be pressure all around. Just embrace it and take all of the energy you can get from that and implement it in the right way and the right direction. I think that’s the secret to finals rugby.”

England is looking to cap off an overwhelmingly positive World Cup campaign, in contrast to four years ago, when it hosted the tournament but crashed out in the pool stage following losses to Wales and Australia.

Lock George Kruis was a member of England’s 2015 World Cup squad, and he believes his team’s run to this year’s final has been partly fueled by that disappointment.

“I think you learn a lot from the last World Cup,” said Kruis. “A lot of good teams or teams that have done things have definitely lost or gone through learning phases previously. It doesn’t give us any right for tomorrow — we’ve got to turn up and do the job. But it definitely gives us the experience, that a lot went through the pain of losing and learning off the back of it.”

Saturday’s game will be the first Rugby World Cup final ever to be held in Asia, but history suggests that free-flowing, high-scoring rugby could be in short supply.

Only 15 tries have been scored over the eight finals since the competition began in 1987, and South Africa assistant coach Mzwandile Stick is not holding his breath for many more on Saturday.

“If you look at the history of the World Cup, there are few World Cups that have been won by brilliant tries,” said Stick. “In 1995, the game was decided by the two flyhalves, when it came to drop goals. And then if you look at 2003, when England won it, Jonny Wilkinson scored a drop goal. In 2011, between France and New Zealand, it was a one-point difference.

“We are well-prepared for this game. You don’t really get many opportunities to score tries because we’re now talking about the two best teams in the world, currently. If we have the opportunity, hopefully we will score tries, but I think the kicking game is going to massive. That’s how World Cups are decided.”