By Roger Childs
Perhaps the defining photo of the changing of the guard in world rugby shows English forward Courtney Lawes leaping high in the line-out with a hand pushing Kieran Read’s head down. I’m sure the English press will use it again!
However, before for the victory celebrations can begin, the Poms have to beat the Springboks on Saturday. The English would dearly love to rub salt into the wound and pull off the treble of beating the top three Southern Hemisphere teams in a row. Is it a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily. The Springboks did win Four Nations Trophy mid year and would love to add the greatest prize of all – the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
The talented South Africans
What will South Africa bring to the game? They have a very impressive forward pack led by Siya Kolisi which out-muscled the Welsh last Sunday. In the back of the scrum is the very experienced Duane Vermeulan and he is backed by the speedy Pieter-Steph du Toit in the loose. They also fortunate in having one of the world’s best hookers ready to come off the bench in Malcolm Marx.
At half back they have one of the best in the business: Faf de Klerk. He has a quick, long pass, kicks well and is very speedy from the base of the scrum. At first five is the experienced Handre Pollard who will run the game for them and perform as a deadly goal kicker should the opportunities arise.
A great relief for the coaches is the return of star wing Cheslin Kolbe. He had been one of the best of the many talented wingers on show at the World Cup and will provide some attacking flare that was lacking against Wales.
No doubt the South African coaches have carefully studied the video of the English victory over the All Blacks to sort out their strategies for Saturday’s final.
What about the English?
Well they played the game of their lives to beat the All Blacks comprehensively, but can they go one better in the final? They have the team to do it with no weaknesses from hooker to full back. Their tight five are strong scrummagers and in the line-out they have the inspirational Maro Itoje who played a blinder last weekend. He is also quick around the field and very adept at using his long reach to effect turnovers in the rucks.
Their flankers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry are young and quick, and outplayed their All Black opposites last Saturday. All the team are speedy round the field, their tackling is hard and effective, and their passing crisp and accurate. Big Manu Tuilagi is an imposing presence in mid field and he is backed up by the very experienced Owen Farrell. Then in George Ford they have an excellent goal kicker.
On paper England probably have the edge, however the Springboks do have a team that could beat them.
Fighting for the scraps
Meanwhile tonight there is the clash for the third spot on the podium. The losers in the World Cup semi-finals are never very keen to play this game. However, this time it’s different – there is a lot of pride at stake.
It will be Kiwi Warren Gatland’s last test as coach and he would love to sign off with a victory over his nemesis – New Zealand. Unfortunately his team lost one of their props and star winger George North to injury in the semi-final loss to South Africa. However, their other winger, Josh Adams, will be dangerous. He has been one of the stars of the tournament with a number of tries.
For the All Backs it is a chance to finish the tournament playing the style of game they love most – quick ball and open, running rugby. It is coach Steve Hansen’s last test and also sayonara for Keiran Read, Ben Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty. The team picked has a mix of youth and experience, and hopefully the under-rated half back Brad Webber, will get a run early in the second half.
There will be no lack of motivation from the All Blacks, and hopefully they can sign off with the decisive victory they want and one the fans deserve.