Rugby World Cup final predictions and talking points: England v South Africa

Gareth Jones previews the Rugby World Cup Final between England and South Africa
Gareth Jones previews the Rugby World Cup Final between England and South Africa

After six weeks of pulsating rugby we now know it will be England and South Africa competing in the World Cup final. Gareth Jones provides his analysis and predictions for the showdown in Yokohama.

It was very much a case of mixed emotions over this gripping semi-final weekend: pure joy at England's stunning performance against New Zealand, and deep depression at Wales falling so painful close yet again at the last four stage.

It was always known that these semi-finals would leave us with a showdown between two of the best sides in the sport, and that's what we have as England prepare to face South Africa.

What's fascinating about this final is that when these two great rugby nations went head-to-head in a three-match Test series in South Africa last year, it was clear to see both had the talent to win a World Cup, but still had plenty of development to go through - and problems to solve - if they were to do that in 2019.

Time was against both, but within 16 months England and the Springboks have completed the transition to world-class - and huge credit needs to be given to both coaching teams and, of course, the players.

Whatever happens in Saturday's final, what we should expect to see is these two nations, along with New Zealand, dominate world rugby for at least the next four years.

Unlike Sir Clive Woodwood's 'Dad's Army' outfit of 2003, when you look at the age of the players in both squads these are not sides built to expire at the end of this tournament, they are designed to continue their journey. Whatever happens on Saturday, their potential to get better is clear and that will remain true.

But in the here and now, there's no denying that focus is squarely on one historic game, for which England will start as favourites. Let's get into it.


Summary

Final: England v South Africa

Winner: England

Where: International Stadium, Yokohama

When: Saturday, 0900 GMT

Best bet: A successful drop goal in the match at 3/1

There have been seven drop goals in the eight World Cup finals to date, while England attempted two during their semi-final win over New Zealand. Both England, in 2003, and South Africa, in 1995, won the World Cup with extra-time drop goals.

The route to the Rugby World Cup Final in Japan, as England and South Africa meet in the Final
The route to the Rugby World Cup Final in Japan, as England and South Africa meet in the Final


The New Zealand factor

England produced one of their greatest ever performances as they dispatched the back-to-back world champions. In my semi-final predictions the chief concern was whether they could produce an 80-minute performance to beat the very best when it really mattered - and they finally did just that.

What was so pleasing and impressive about their showing was that it was not the product of negative, smash-and-kick tactics that the All Blacks were clearly expecting. England were open, creative and brave in attack, and aggressive, calm and clever in defence. It rattled the Kiwis and they had no answer.

For England it was not just a performance of immense quality, graft and passion, it was one of incredible cohesion and game intelligence, knowing exactly when to get the ball wide, choosing the right breakdown to attack to win back possession and which to leave to instead line up and defend. It was almost the perfect game.

Play like that again and England are the world champions for a second time. The question is, can they do it?


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Podcast England World Cup finalists George Chuter and Mark Cueto joins us for our World Cup final preview


Here's a fact - with the exception of Australia in 1991, each and every side that has beaten New Zealand in the quarters or semis has failed to go on and win the tournament. Australia did it in 2003, and France twice in 1999 and 2007, but neither went on to lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

This emphasises just how much beating the All Blacks takes out of a unit physically, mentally and emotionally, and it is clear that it is very hard - almost impossible - to repeat the same levels of intensity just seven days later.

This is England's greatest challenge on Saturday. They have the quality, the tactics, the intelligence, the belief. If they can find the same intensity, they will join the legends of 2003.

England celebrate their famous semi-final victory over New Zealand
England celebrate their famous semi-final victory over New Zealand

Can South Africa change the game?

Following South Africa's impression of a steamroller in their three-point victory over the battling, brave Welsh, the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Bryan Habana and Gareth Thomas all voiced what the rest of us were already thinking - if the Springboks play in the same one-dimensional way against Eddie Jones' men, then they will be defeated.

Those former pros also felt that head coach Rassie Erasmus has been holding something back in this tournament, saving it for the final they always believed they would be in. England produced new ideas to surprise the All Blacks, so of course it is possible the Springboks will do the same in Yokohama, but I'm not so sure.

Without becoming blinded by patriotism, reviewing England's semi-final performance you really struggle to see what weakness and opportunities Erasmus can find and expose in this impressive Red Rose outfit.

However, there is always hope.


Vote to tell us who you think will win the Rugby World Cup final
Vote to tell us who you think will win the Rugby World Cup final


As poor as New Zealand were made to look by the intensity of England it is easy to forget that they actually made a lot of breaks. How many times did they make it from their own 22 to the halfway line in a blink of an eye? Every time we held our breath and thought 'here we go, they've finally clicked', but because they became so disorganised they were picked off at the breakdown by the more cohesive English.

There are stats that will concern Jones and defence coach John Mitchell, too. New Zealand beat 34 defenders in the contest, compared to England's 22; they made 12 clean breaks, 154 runs, carried over the gain line 44 times and forced England into 34 missed tackles.

The week before Australia made 14 clean breaks, beat 21 defenders and forced 21 missed tackles, despite eventually begin hammered by England, and South Africa must plan to take advantage of the opportunities they will expect to create.

Of course these are two quality attacking sides that will make inroads into your defence. However good you are, and boy have England been brilliant, you are never going to have it all your own way in the latter stages of the World Cup.

South Africa will look at this area and know they need to become more expansive to expose England out wide. If the above was not enough evidence to convince Erasmus to change their direct ways, then casting his mind back to that 2018 Test series should remind him how you can beat the English.

From left to right, South Africa's powerful forwards Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw
From left to right, South Africa's powerful forwards Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw

The opening two Tests were incredibly entertaining affairs where both sides forgot how to defend. We had 10 tries in the first and four in the second, as South Africa came from 24-8 and 12-0 behind in those respective matches to win both and seal the series.

In the first, the home side's joy particularly came out wide, with wing S'busiso Nkosi scoring twice and full-back Willie Le Roux adding another. It was some of the most enjoyable and free flowing rugby South Africa had arguably ever played and it seemed the new era of Springbok rugby was one that would combine their traditional brute force and kicking game with quick pace, wide rugby too.

However that series seemed a watershed moment for both coaches. It made both realise success in the modern game is built on defence and conservatism. Both had to sacrifice some of their flair and off the cuff style that the exuberance of youth brought to allow a more organised game plan that strengthened their defensive lines.

Faf de Klerk is a key player for South Africa in Saturday's Rugby World Cup final against England
Final insight: An exclusive insight into Faf de Klerk from the Englishman that know him best

Both have improved their defensive efforts to become the best in the world in this area, and it is clear the kicking game has become much more prevalent with both over the last 15 months.

But here I believe is a key difference and the one that could decide the destination of the William Webb Ellis Trophy. England demonstrated on Saturday they can vary their game plan and play expansive rugby when needed. South Africa I feel have become so set in their ways so quickly, that they would find it hard to click back to a more open game.

They could have done that against Japan and Wales and probably would have won both matches more comfortably, but they didn't and were almost made to pay against Wales. They trust the way they play and you wonder if Erasmus is brave enough to change a successful system in the final.

England to learn from Wales

In my semi-final analysis I pointed out how Wales' kick-and-chase game could expose South Africa's back three. In the quarters Japan used this tactical excellently, regathering possession 15 times from kicks and forcing plenty more mistakes from their opponents under that high ball.

Wales did the same, regathering 18 kicks and gaining an astonishing 931 metres from kicks from hand. Had Wales had that extra quality, they would have translated these stats to points on the scoreboard and we'd be talking about our first ever all northern hemisphere final.

England do have that increased skillset and magic dust outside and with Elliot Daly, Jonny May and Anthony Watson as their back three they will cause more damage to the Springboks if they get the same success in this area. They regained nine kicks against Australia and seven against the Kiwis.

Jones has admitted they kick more than most other teams in the world, and having watched how well it worked for inferior teams in Japan and Wales, he will be pushing this tactic.

The battle of the breakdown

The breakdown is always key to winning a game of rugby union and never has that proved so true than in the semi-finals. England won 15 turnovers against New Zealand, 10 in their opponents' half, showing that intelligence required to know when to really attack the ball at the ruck and in the tackle.

South Africa were animals at the ruck against Wales, so aggressive, so strong. They didn't let Wales get one quick ball all game and it destroyed them. They couldn't get any moves going in the backs, and most of the time had to commit four players to win their own ball versus the Springboks' two, meaning South Africa always had more defenders than Wales had attackers - meat and drink to a Venus flytrap-like defence.

However, on the whole they didn't actually turnover possession at the ruck, just slow it down, winning just three turnovers in this area.

Nicknamed the kamikaze twins by Eddie Jones, England flankers Sam Underhill, left, and Tom Curry
Nicknamed the kamikaze twins by Eddie Jones, England flankers Sam Underhill, left, and Tom Curry

With Kolisi, Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Duane Vermeulen they have the bigger, more powerful back-row, but England, with the 'kamikaze twins' Sam Underhill and Tom Curry (two of the standout performers in Japan) have the superior speed and game intelligence.

It is going to be a fascinating contest and one that could determine the victor. There will be a huge requirement on England to get to the breakdown and get the ball out of there quickly, and they will rely Underhill and Curry.

They need to play a quick game to beat the Boks and not allow them to slow it down to their dire slow tempo, something they did so well against Wales.

Defying history

A final point to make and one which goes against South Africa. No team that has lost a pool match has responded to go on and win the World Cup - having suffered defeat to New Zealand, South Africa would be the first to do so.

In 2007 and 2011, England and France respectively lost to South Africa and New Zealand in their pools but did still make the final, only to again taste defeat to the same nations. The circumstances here are different - the side who beat the Springboks have been eliminated elsewhere - but history nevertheless goes against them here.

The importance of a drop goal

Jonny Wilkinson's famous drop goal to deliver the 2003 World Cup for England
Jonny Wilkinson's famous drop goal to deliver the 2003 World Cup for England

Drops goals in rugby have become a dying art, a last resort option in the final moments of a close game. But any England fan knows the importance of a drop goal - we hold one World Cup to our name because of Jonny Wilkinson's right foot in 2003.

Despite their dominance against New Zealand, we saw England try, and fail, with two, and Wales attempted one in the final moments in their semi, also missing.

It shows that while drop goals are a rarity these days, they are definitely in the mind of players going into these huge contests. In a World Cup final you have to take points from every visit to your opponents' 22.

There have been seven drop goals in World Cup finals. Dan Carter hit one in 2015, France's François Trinh-Duc in 2011, Wilkinson in 2003, there were three in 1995, including two from the Springbok fly-half Joel Stransky, and one in 1989.

Also consider that in the 2007 Paris final between these two nations, every point was from the boot, all penalties - it shows that tries could be at a premium and kicks could win it.

With two excellent defences on show and the need for good discipline, the odd drop goal could be the only way to keep the scoreboard ticking over in your favour.

Summary

There is no such thing as a one-sided final, even with New Zealand's dominance in over the last eight years. This game could turn on a red card, a controversial decision, a moment of magic or madness.

But having built so well during this tournament, staying injury free and with the extra intelligence, experience and, let's be honest, the sly element Jones brings to England, we should expect to see captain Owen Farrell lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

England have proved they have absolutely everything in their arsenal and they still have more in the tank. They have the born winners in the likes of Farrell, George Ford and Jamie George and that is another factor in England's favour. They should win.

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