It is, in the end, a game of rugby, and like all games of rugby it will be won by the forwards who dominate the collision area, the half-backs who make the correct decisions at the important moments and the goal-kicker who holds his nerve when the sweat runs cold, the hands start shaking and the brain goes into overload. A little over five weeks ago, the Springboks were so much better than England in the first two departments that the third was rendered irrelevant, although Percy Montgomery still scored heavily with the boot. Tonight, when it really matters, it will be different.
Why? Not simply because Jonny Wilkinson has returned to the side. His presence certainly helps, but it might be argued – should be argued – that the presence of Phil Vickery in the front row and the emergence of Andy Gomarsall as the scrum-half of choice have been equally significant in guiding the reigning champions to a second successive World Cup final and earning them the right to defend their title to the bitter end.
It will be different tonight because England have rediscovered the best of themselves in the 36 days since losing to the South Africans at this same venue in the northern reaches of the French capital. By a margin of 36 points, coincidentally enough.
Whether the best of English will be good enough to withstand the most furious of South African onslaughts – and on the big occasion, no team in the world does fury better than the Boks – remains to be seen, but Brian Ashton, their head coach, was in no doubt yesterday that this will be a contest rather than a walkover.
"We don't need a different approach; we just need to be a bloody sight better in our execution," he said. "We were completely outplayed last time, but for a variety of reasons, we weren't able to field the side we'd planned to field. We have our most experienced people involved now, and at times like this, it is those who have been in these situations before who step forward and take charge."
The messages of support have been pouring in, one of them from the actor Daniel Craig – the champions could probably use a James Bond figure against the Boks, although the No 10 shirt has already been claimed by a rival popular superhero – and two from a keen supporter of Scottish rugby by the name of Gordon Brown. "We're on first-name terms now," joked Ashton after renewing contact with the Prime Minister.
While Jake White, the Springbok coach, has had the best part of four years to build a side capable of winning a second world title, his opposite number has been at it for less than 10 months. During that brief period, he has enjoyed and endured a curate's egg of a Six Nations Championship, been beaten to a pulp on the South African high veld – heaven knows, those two summer Tests were evil affairs – and suffered cruelly at the hands of commentators peddling the daft theory that England's improvement over the past four games was due to a players' revolt against the back-room staff.
Would Ashton rather have done it White's way? "I'd rather be where I am," he replied. "Look, we were far too complacent in our approach to the opening game against the United States and we were completely outperformed by a very good South African side the following week. Since then, some very experienced people have returned to the side. There was a time during the Six Nations when I thought the way forward might be to go with some younger players, but once we joined up for the pre-World Cup camp, it became evident that if you're serious about winning a tournament like this, played in a hostile environment away from your own shores, you're better off with experience than you are without it. This is not a question of my selection being vindicated. It's a matter of sporting logic."
Ashton knows England will have an edge at the scrum tonight, just as he knows the high-calibre Springbok line-out will be difficult to crack. The eye of this particular storm will be found at the tackle area, which the champions dominated completely in their quarter-final victory over the Wallabies and managed effectively in last week's last-four triumph over the host nation. This time, they will be under a heap of pressure. The South African flankers, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith, are supremely combative at the breakdown, Burger being every bit as adept as the New Zealand captain Richie McCaw at forcing the turnovers that often lead to tries.
"It is a massive, massive challenge," the coach conceded. "Ideally, you like your side to dominate in every area of the game, but I suspect domination of any area becomes less likely the closer you get to a World Cup final, simply because of the quality of opposition. Yes, Burger and Smith are high-class operators, and they're not alone. The breakdown is a critical part of the game, especially when you meet the Boks, and we'll have to be at our very best to compete."
With Jason Robinson, the full-back, playing his last game of international rugby and a number of his fellow greybeards – Mike Catt and Mark Regan, Phil Vickery and Martin Corry – also nearing the end of the road, the emotional voltage will be unprecedentedly high. Perhaps Ashton knew this when, on taking over the coaching role, he suggested to his players that they might yet "shock the world". As he admitted yesterday, the phrase was not his own. "I took it from Muhammad Ali," he said, paying homage to his great sporting hero. "If it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me."
Shock the world? England have already stunned it by getting this far. South Africa start as favourites tonight, but they would rather be playing any of the 18 teams already knocked out of the tournament. Yes, even the All Blacks.
Kicks, packs, subs and smacks: Where the Cup final will be won and lost
* THE KICKING GAME
This is not only about Jonny Wilkinson and Percy Montgomery. The scrum-halves, Andy Gomarsall and Fourie du Preez, will both have a responsibility for clearing their lines and punting high for their wings. And if it comes down to drop goals, who will land the blow that counts? Wilkinson from 40 metres, or Frans Steyn from 50?
* THE POSSESSION GAME
Possession being nine-tenths of rugby law, the pack who control the ball most effectively will go a long way towards victory. The English forwards have been terrific in this regard over the past couple of weeks, but South Africa's superb line-out will have a major influence. The two back-row units may have the final say, in which case Martin Corry's warrior spirit will be invaluable.
* THE NUMBERS GAME
Last week, the French were meant to hurt England off the bench by introducing the Chabals, Michalaks and Dominicis at crucial moments. Instead, the holders made the more successful substitutions – notably when Joe Worsley took the field and made a match-saving tackle on Vincent Clerc. England will be less worried about the Bokke reinforcements, although Ruan Pienaar is a dangerously unpredictable runner in broken field.
* THE MIND GAME
Four years ago, England's psychological domination was complete. Going into the World Cup pool match, they had beaten their opponents four times in succession, once in Bloemfontein and by 50 points at Twickenham. This time, it is the Boks who have four consecutive victories, although two of them were against a shadow side last June. A key advantage, or a false sense of security?Reuse content