A flying start is a must for Springboks in tricky semifinal thriller against England
The Springboks have won 11 of their 13 Tests in 2023, an impressive run that includes a record-breaking victory against the All Blacks and a World Cup quarterfinal triumph over France.
Springbok coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have spoken at length this past week about managing the mood in the camp ahead of the trickiest match of their 2023 World Cup campaign. There’s so much riding on the semifinal fixture against England on Saturday evening, and a lot of history between the two sides.
While the Boks are treating England with due respect, there’s a sense that Saturday’s match is wedged between two “finals”. The Boks won the first final when they edged France 29-28 in front of a partisan and passionate local crowd, and in terms of external pressure, the challenge won’t get any tougher than that in the coming weeks. Having passed that test, the Boks may already be contemplating the tactical and mental challenge of competing in the actual final on 28 October.
It’s a dangerous mindset, though, and Erasmus and Nienaber have worked hard to eradicate it this past week. The team has come too far over the past four years to fall foul of complacency at this crucial stage.
Room to improve
There was so much to like about the Bok performance against France. Siya Kolisi and his charges gave absolutely everything over the course of the contest. They suffered a series of early setbacks, when they conceded a try and then a yellow card to Eben Etzebeth. They continued to battle for a foothold in the game, and then in the final minutes, they made a couple of clutch plays to seal the result.
There’s something to be said for a team that scrambles for 80 minutes, and then still finds the energy to land the killer blow. On the other hand, Erasmus and Nienaber will be less than thrilled with the way the Boks handled the challenge of the French.
South Africa chased the hosts for 70 minutes. The frantic nature of the contest made for compelling viewing, but the Boks can’t play like that in the semifinal and expect to advance to the decider.
Boks start as favourites
The Boks will start as favourites for a number of reasons. While their form has fluctuated in the period between World Cups since the game went professional in 1996, they’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the knockout stages, winning 12 of their 15 playoff fixtures. They’ve never lost to England in a World Cup playoff, winning 44-21 in the 1999 quarterfinal in Paris, 15-6 in the 2007 final (also in Paris), and 32-12 in the 2019 decider in Yokohama.
Going by current form and results, the Boks are the superior side. Nienaber’s charges have won 11 of their 13 Tests in 2023, an impressive run that includes a record-breaking victory against the All Blacks and a World Cup quarterfinal triumph over France.
By contrast, England have been in decline for some time. The Boks’ emphatic 27-13 win at Twickenham last November brought an end to Eddie Jones’ tenure, as the Rugby Football Union opted – somewhat surprisingly – to replace their head coach less than a year before the World Cup in France.
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Steve Borthwick fared little better with the England side, as they finished fourth in the 2023 Six Nations. They went on to lose 20-9 to Wales, 29-10 to Ireland and 30-22 to Fiji in the World Cup warm-ups.
There’s been a bit hype around the fact that England have progressed to the World Cup semifinals as the only unbeaten side, but that record demands closer scrutiny.
England failed to score a single try in their opening match against Argentina, struggled to put away Japan, and were at their most convincing when facing tournament newcomers Chile. A couple of controversial refereeing decisions went their way in the 18-17 win against Samoa, and in the latter stages of the 30-24 quarterfinal victory against Fiji.
They’ve been described by many as the weakest of the semifinalists, and they are full value for that tag.
Physical battle to shape contest
And yet, they shouldn’t be taken lightly. Earlier this week, former Bok captains John Smit and Victor Matfield highlighted the physical strengths of England, and how their kicking game is suited to knockout rugby.
“England can beat us,” Matfield said. “They play in the right areas, they play territory, they don’t take any chances. They take the three points, getting a little bit ahead, waiting for the opposition to make mistakes. That is a difficult game to play against, especially for us who like going off turnovers.”
Erasmus and Nienaber have stuck with the same 23 that prevailed against France last week. It’s a strong combination that ticks a lot of boxes. The selections in the starting lineup and on the bench indicates how they plan to play.
The Boks hammered England at the scrums in the 2019 World Cup final, and flyhalf Handré Pollard converted the resultant penalties into points. Once the South African forwards were on top, the Boks played for territory. They won the aerial contests, and then counterattacked from turnovers, with Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe scoring a couple of stunning tries.
While the Boks have developed their attack over the past four years, their overall approach and philosophy has remained much the same. They have the forwards to boss England at the scrums and line-outs – even though England are among the strongest teams at the tournament in these departments. If they can win the breakdown battle and control the gain line, then halfbacks Cobus Reinach and Manie Libbok can ask questions of the England defence.
Later in the contest, the experienced combination of Faf de Klerk, Pollard and Willie le Roux will be unleashed from the bench in order to close out the match– or to inspire a fightback, if the Boks trail on the scoreboard.
Pollard boasts a perfect goal-kicking record at this tournament, and nailed a long-range penalty to give the Boks the lead in the 70th minute of the quarterfinal last week. He may well be called upon to slot another decisive kick in the dying stages of the semifinal.
Will it be that close, though? The Boks may have beaten England 32-12 in the 2019 final and 27-13 at Twickenham last November, but both of those games were in the balance for the better part of the hour before the Boks raced clear.
The Boks need to be sharper in the first half of the semifinal than they were in the initial stages of the playoff against France. If they get on top of England, and convert dominance into points, they can start to dream about competing in another World Cup final.
Until then, they must remain on task. Their quest for a back-to-back title, and indeed their legacy, hinges largely on their mental approach. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.