So it comes down to 80 minutes, perhaps a few minutes more, against the Springboks, of all people – the last team I confronted as England coach, the team who twice put more than 50 points past Brian Ashton's side on the summer tour, the team who won last month's pool game 36-0 and appeared to reduce the world title defence to ashes. It is a fabulous finale to this most unpredictable of tournaments, a game in which both sets of players will be tested to the limit, emotionally and psychologically, as well as physically.
Along with New Zealand, the Boks present the most direct and intense challenge in rugby. If you allow them to bully you, the game seems to last for ever. I have said before that, in trying to beat you, the South Africans also try to beat you up. They run through you and over you as a first option, and run round you only as a last resort.
Or rather, they used to. Over the course of this competition, I've noticed a subtle change in their approach – a change I put down to my old adversary Eddie Jones, who coached the Wallabies to the 2003 World Cup final (which they lost to us, by the way). Eddie is an Australian rugby man through and through, so it was intriguing to see him join up with Jake White shortly before the current tournament. His official title is "specialist coach", but basically he's a combination of analyst and ideas man. He's a shrewd sort and he has made a mark on the Boks' style.
I'm not talking about massive alterations; certainly, the South Africans have not gone soft, or fancy, or started playing fairy-tale rugby. But the little offloads out of the tackle we now see, the smart passes before contact, the slightly more calculated running angles – these have Eddie's fingerprints all over them, and they have added a dangerous new dimension to the Springbok game. When I look at how the outside-half Butch James has added strings to his bow, how big ugly locks such as Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield keep the ball alive with flashes of intelligent distribution, I cannot help thinking that here is a side with genuine balance.
Jake, the main man, has made a different kind of impact during his years as head coach. He comes from Western Province, so he was always likely to add a touch of flair to the mix. But his real contribution has been to establish a sense of solidity and continuity. With Jake pulling the strings and Eddie throwing in the added extras, they have a very formidable brains trust behind them.
Can they be stopped, then? Of course they can. As I mentioned last week, before the semi-final with France that most people thought England would lose, any game of rugby is winnable. What I liked about England in that match – and in the one before, against the Wallabies in Marseilles – was their high level of concentration, their complete composure and their keen tactical awareness in the final 10 minutes or so. All winners know how to negotiate what we call the "business end" of a contest, and England have twice proved themselves winners in this knock-out stage.
The first 20 minutes are always important and the Boks will play at a ferocious pace from the off. England will have to live with them here and then throw down the gauntlet by raising the pace themselves in the minutes at the end of each half. I want to see them attack the South Africans in the areas they consider themselves strong – at the line-out, at the breakdown – as well as at the scrum where, contrary to their tradition, these Boks are not the greatest. Really top sides are never scared to take on their opponents at their own game.
We know Matfield is a terrific line-out operator and that with Botha, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Danie Rossouw also among their number, they have five quality jumpers. That is a lot for any side to handle, especially when the South African lifters are so good. England will have to be at their cleverest, as well as at their most aggressive, in contesting the Springbok throw.
It should be much easier for England to expose South Africa at the set piece. I think the Bokke coaches are worried about Andrew Sheridan and they're right to be. The way he is playing, Sheridan could prop up a scrum on his own. He has been so disruptive in dominating opposition tight heads, he has enabled Mark Regan and Phil Vickery to concentrate wholly on their own jobs. I've no doubt he can dominate C J Van der Linde, the poor soul charged with grappling with him today. Van der Linde is no fool, but the Boks do lack a real power scrummager. As a consequence, they don't frighten opponents in the way they once did.
Yet whatever advantages England might establish for themselves in specific areas, they will not bear fruit unless the broad strategy is right. The tactics in the second halves of the victories over Australia and France were spot on, based on a solid kicking game – Jason Robinson has been particularly impressive in his decision-making on when to put boot to ball – and an intense challenge at the breakdown. The issue? These Springboks pose different problems, especially Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie and the three hard runners in the back row.
England should be able to handle the likes of Francois Steyn and J P Pietersen. These are dangerous players, but physically, they are nothing out of the ordinary. However, the likes of Habana, Fourie, Burger, Smith and Rossouw are unusually powerful, and if they are allowed to generate some momentum in the heavy traffic, England will find it difficult to counter-ruck in the way they did in the quarter-final and semi-final. Thus far in the tournament, they have not been hurt too badly in contact: Stirling Mortlock, the Wallaby captain, occasionally put them on the back foot, as did a couple of the Tongan players, notably Epi Taione. But the Boks have the personnel to get some real go-forward in their game. England will have to meet fire with fire and produce the tackling performance of their lives.
This must be combined with complete self-control – a squeaky-clean effort that will keep Percy Montgomery's penalty opportunities down to a bare minimum – allied to an equally disciplined performance in looking after the ball. With Habana around, turnovers are an absolute no-no. People forget that in the match we lost at Twickenham last November, we actually led 14-3. By making unnecessary errors in our own third of the field, we allowed the South Africans back into the contest. If that happens tonight, the Webb Ellis Trophy will change hands.
I do believe, however, this England team has grown sufficiently to put together all the things that will make victory possible. The Boks have yet to be severely tested in this tournament, so if they are placed under pressure they could crack. There's a little bit of arrogance about them and I'm not sure they respect England as much as they should. It's a dangerous game for them to play because this is a World Cup final and the reigning champions are in it. This contest will be won by the team with the strongest nerve and the greatest desire. England have been through the fires and come out the other side. Do the Boks have that never-say-die quality? We are about to find out.
Player to watch: Andy Gomarsall
I've never seen him play better. All World Cup-winning teams have had influential scrum-halves – David Kirk and Nick Farr-Jones, Joost van der Westhuizen, George Gregan our own Matt Dawson – and Gomarsall has emerged as an extremely important figure in this England side. His work around the base of the scrum has been top-drawer, as Finau Maka, the dangerous Tongan No 8, and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, the clever French half-back, discovered to their cost. What is more, his mastery of the scrum-half's basic skills, the pass and the box-kick, has become more evident as the tournament has progressed. Perhaps most significantly, he has proved himself capable of lasting the full 80 minutes. There was a time when tiredness would lead to mistakes. Not now. His contest with Fourie du Preez will be pivotal. Du Preez is a high-calibre player who really hurt England in the 36-0 defeat last month. In fact, he gave Shaun Perry a terrible time. Gomarsall has been around professional rugby for far longer than Perry, however, and at this stage of proceedings experience is invaluable.Reuse content