England's date with destiny is fast approaching, but with South Africa advised pre-tournament, how does Tony Calvin see the World Cup final? Read his in-depth preview.
Every punter knows the pitfalls of recency bias but there has been something of a blast of regency about the way that England have progressed through this tournament that sees them as a top-priced 8/15, and general five-point favourites, to beat South Africa in 80 minutes in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday morning.
The outright betting reads 1/2 England and 2/1 South Africa.
That gives you some idea of how impressively England have played in the knock-out stages, culminating of course in that sensational 19-7 semi-final defeat of New Zealand – they would have kept the All Blacks scoreless were it not for the line-out overthrow on their own line – but also how limited and one-dimensional South Africa have been.
At the start of this tournament, this would have been a pick 'em game at best – in my book, anyway – so is that shift in the line justified on the evidence of just a few matches?
As someone who has been banging the Springbok drum for a while now, and tipped them at 9/2 on these pages, I really want to say "no" and in the immediate aftermath of South Africa’s hugely unconvincing 19-16 defeat of Wales on Sunday, I tweeted that England really shouldn’t be any shorter than 4/6 for the final.
But, after watching both semi-finals back, now I am not so sure.
I saw more positives than most in South Africa’s opening defeat to New Zealand, where they didn’t get the rub of the green in crucial stages of the match, but ever since then they have really disappointed me.
The side that shared the spoils, and points, in their three previous encounters with New Zealand – including some devastating running rugby in two high-scoring matches – coming into this tournament, and won the Rugby Championship in the summer, have simply not turned up in Japan.
Now, I know one of their main strike weapons, Cheslin Kolbe, has missed three of their matches to date, but they have looked as if they are going through the motions – and in slow motion, too – in all their games since that opener.
It’s as if they have been content to get to their destination at 50 miles an hour on the inside of the motorway, while England have been breaking the speed limit in the outer lane.
And it has been quite clear the Boks have lacked an instant change of gear against Japan and Wales.
I didn’t like their lackadaisical attitude when they won their three pool games either, and their backers will be hoping they finally awake from their 10-man slumber. Because they will need to.
They could yet win by attempting to grind their opposition into submission as, if any side have the forward and set-piece power to go toe-to-toe with England and come up smiling, it is South Africa.
And they have a 9-10 combination of Faf de Klerk and Andre Pollard that can cause any side problems, with the scrum-half a real-live wire, and the fly-half a defensive rock who is highly likely to kick his goals, as Wales know only too well.
And Kolbe is back.
The issue is do they have the capability to chase a game against a premier outfit, if needed, in their current playing mindset?
Although they came back well enough after conceding those two quick killer-blows against New Zealand – if you can concede two killer-blows, that is – their backs outside Pollard are a pretty limited bunch in terms of on the world stage, for all Damien De Allende is a proper midfield unit who gives them go-forward and Makazole Mapimpi’s try-scoring record is impressive should he get the chances.
And did I mention Kolbe is back?
If England start as they did in their semi-final and go a converted score up, or more, then I have serious doubts about South Africa's ability to bridge the gap. They don’t look to be a side capable of chasing a lead in this tournament.
And, at the risk of being a stuck record, the defensive liability that is Willie Le Roux has done nothing in this tournament to suggest he should grace the final of a World Cup.
Wales missed a trick by not attacking him, and South Africa, out wide and I don’t think England will make the same mistake.
There is no doubt that in my mind that Rassie Erasmus, touchingly loyal – it is no surprise to see England unchanged, obviously – should have shifted Kolbe to full-back, as he is not only defensively better than Le Roux but he can also get into the game more.
I was pretty underwhelmed by Eddie Jones’ team in their defeat of Argentina and thought they were flattered to a fair degree by the 24-point winning margin against Australia in the quarters, for all they professionally turned the screw against a side that played fast-and-loose into their hands at 17-16 early in the second-half.
South Africa certainly won’t offer them such easy field position – though they will if their kicking game doesn’t improve – but England showed an invention, pace, belief and intensity against New Zealand that no-one would have been able to live with on the day. They are simply playing quicker and more accurate rugby than their fellow finalists.
As Warren Gatland rightly pointed out (before being swatted aside by Jones’ third-place play-off jibe), backing up monumental performances week-on-week is very difficult – as the All Blacks discovered after their Ireland victory – and South Africa will present a formidable challenge if slowing the tempo.
You only have to look back to England’s 12-11 defeat of the Boks at Twickenham – and the infamous refereeing decision not to award the visitors a kickable penalty for a high shot on Andre Esterhuizen by Owen Farrell in the last play of the game – to see how little there is between the sides if the game lacks width.
However, where England have really have progressed since the Six Nations is that they have adopted a far more aggressive stance in both defence and attack.
That opening try in the semi-final was a real 'wow' moment and statement of intent, and the re-emergence of Anthony Watson has been one of the highlights of England’s progress.
He really has been outstanding, and he will ask the questions of South Africa’s defence that Wales didn’t and should have, as will England’s big ball carriers once they get on a roll.
As for England’s defence, it needs no further applause here. It has been sensational.
With a view to my outright book and my 9/2 selection, it saddens me to conclude that I suspect England are going to lift the trophy for the second time, unless South Africa can find their pre-tournament form.
The Springboks may well do – they must know that a replica of the Welsh performance will see them lose, and lose heavily, even to the England that saw off Australia - and they are now far too big a price for me to consider laying back at around 2/1 on Betfair, so the issue is where does the fresh bet in the match lie?
There is hope from recent final results for the underdogs, at least in terms of keeping it close on the scoreboard.
New Zealand beat Australia 34-17 in 2015 but that was an uncharacteristically high-scoring and a loose affair, and it has to be remembered that the favourites often fall over the line in closer matches, occasionally failing as the Kiwis did narrowly in 1995.
The All Blacks edged home 8-7 in France four years earlier (they were at home, too), while South Africa only beat a moderate England side 15-6 in 2007 (a team they had beaten 36-0 earlier in the tournament), while everyone knows that it took extra-time and that drop goal for Clive Woodward to become a Sir in 2003.
So maybe the final is all about playing within yourself, being defensively-minded, and grinding out an ugly win in the biggest pressure-cooker of them all, as South Africa did when they beat England in a try-less final 12 years ago.
My gut feel would be to take South Africa with the points start, several firms now offering six points, but that does has the feel of 'forcing a bet', which I never do when tipping - especially when I, and maybe we if you followed the advice, have a big interest in the result already.
If you want an 80-minute bet, then I suggest a drop goal at 5/2 in the match - or 100/30 if you can get on at Ladbrokes' boosted price.
The stats of the likely strikers do not make this anywhere near a bet – though all have successfully used this option in the past – but the nature of this match certainly does.
There hasn’t been a drop goal in the sides’ last four meetings, but there were in their two matches before that (and another in the previous three games), and the tactical angle here is two-fold.
Handre Pollard will look to get points on the board at any opportunity – and the drop goal could be a good option, dropping deep against the suffocating English defence. George Ford (who missed a drop goal in the semi-final win over New Zealand) and Owen Farrell will be doing likewise, and Elliott Daly and sub Francois Steyn can bang them over from anywhere, too.
You can easily see England looking to keep the scoreboard ticking over if they do get the Boks on the rack early. Or vice-versa, hopefully.
Furthermore, in the past eight finals, there have been six drop goals (if you include extra-time, admittedly), so it is clear that is a tactic on everyone’s mind when it comes to the crunch.
On that final, drop goal, roll call are Grant Fox (1987), Joel Stransky, with a brace, and Andrew Mehrtens (1995), Jonny Wilkinson (2003) and Dan Carter (2015). The stats are nearly one a game when you look at semi-finals, too.
I may also have a small nibble at 22/1 no try scorer (Sky Bet), but I won’t put that up here. In truth, it’s not a game where I will personally be getting heavily involved, pre-match at least.
With so many personnel changes in the third-place play-off match on Friday morning, it wouldn’t be an easy one to call given the 19- and 20-point handicaps in favour of New Zealand.
You do get the impression that Wales could be on their last legs here, with George North another big injury blow for them, and it isn’t hard to see the humbled pre-tournament favourites going out on a high.
In fact, for all their changes, I really like the revamped look of the Kiwi back-line (six of the seven started in their first Test 30-15 defeat of the Lions in 2017, if not all in the same positions), and I reckon they can sign off with a bang against a Wales side that have had a day shorter turnaround after their semi-final. Perhaps they are the more emotionally-drained, too, given they will view that defeat as a crushing, missed opportunity, something New Zealand certainly couldn’t claim.
So, for all Wales have stayed within 19 points of the All Blacks in four of their last five games – the winning margins have been 18-18-14-40-15 – I suggest New Zealand -19 at the standout evens, with 10/11 fine, if just for a few quid.
Over and out.
Posted at 1000 GMT on 31/10/19.
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