2019 Rugby World Cup Final Review

Saturday 2nd November 2019

South Africa vs England

Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France),, Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

In my preview to this game I suggested a dogfight, with a six point spread in favour of South Africa at the end. When all is said and done, the only bit I got right was that South Africa would win the game. My points spread was way out, 32 – 12 is a 20 point margin and suggests that this was not a dogfight, rather it was something akin to a hiding- especially when we consider that this was a World Cup Final.

With the emotion of the day and the winning of the trophy now safely in the past, we can take a better look at the game and consider what happened. 

How did South Africa achieve what so many suggested was improbable if not impossible?

Let’s begin with an overall summary of the game:

This was a clinical, efficient, focussed, and often brutal display of power rugby that subscribed to the age old teaching of Subdue & Penetrate. 

England came to this game wanting, almost expecting, to physically impose themselves on the South Africans. They had achieved this goal in their semifinal against the New Zealanders a week earlier, and they were rightfully confident that they had found their stride and form at just the right stage of the Rugby World Cup tournament. They had everything going in their favour and they knew it! 

They had also looked at the South African game plan against Wales the previous week, and against Japan a week earlier, and had concluded that the South Africans were a one-dimensional team only capable of playing to one game plan.

They thought that they had the key that would unlock the Springboks.

They were wrong. Very wrong.

If they had taken the time to look beyond the Springboks two Rugby World Cup knockout round games, the two against Japan and then Wales, and also then looked beyond their first Pool B game against the All Blacks, they would have gotten something of hint that the Springboks are not just a kick & chase outfit. 

A look at some World Cup pool stats would have told them that the Springboks were the top try-scoring outfit at the 2019 Rugby World Cup!  

Better even than the All Blacks! 

They would also have seen that South Africa, even when they were throwing the ball around rather than kicking it skywards, were the best defensive side in the entire competition. They conceded just 4 tries in the entire Rugby World Cup.

If the England analysists had then gone a little further back in time and taken a look at some of the Rugby Championships games played earlier in the year, they would have received even more very clear messages about the South African game plan and style. 

They would have seen that South Africa scored 11 tries in their three Rugby Championships games, more than any of Australia, Argentina, or New Zealand.

They might have noticed that the Springboks were the only one of the four countries to have banked try-scoring bonus points – 2 of them, one each against Australia and Argentina.

If they had kept digging, they would have seen that South Africa conceded just 46 points in the three games, with 20 points coming from the four tries they allowed through.

In the 2019 Rugby Championships Australia conceded 10 tries, New Zealand and Argentina conceded 8 tries apiece.  South Africa’s four was an indication of a rock solid defensive system.

The analysts would also have noticed that South Africa conceded very few penalties, less than any of their three southern hemisphere opponents. They would have concluded that South Africa are a very disciplined side.

Take the messages sent during the Rugby Championships, and then the further messages delivered in Japan during the Pool stages and the information, the battle intelligence was there – the 2019 Springboks are much more than just a kick-chasing team of juggernaut forwards and crash-tackling backs.

They would have noticed, surely, that South Africa are a team that plays to a relatively simple overall strategic plan and style, but were able to vary their game plan according to circumstances on the day.

In other words this was a team that had learned to play what was in front of them. They had learned to play to their strengths and control those aspects of the game that were within their sphere of influence.

Sometimes they played a hugely conservative kick & chase pressure game.

They did this with a grinding Subdue & Penetrate plan against a feisty Japan. They did it again with controlled execution against Wales.

But this was only a variation of the overall strategic plan and style of playing. When they needed to, or wanted to, the Springboks could ease back on the kicking game and move the ball around, usually taking it directly up the middle before attacking into the wider channels. That is why Makazole Mapimpi scored 6 tries in this Rugby World Cup. That is why Cheslin Kolbe scored 3, and Cobus Reinach scored 3, while Damian de Allende scored 2. Bongi Mbonambi also scored three, but his were off the back of a driving maul. Of South Africa’s five leading try scorers, four are backline players. 

There is more than a hint about how South Africa played rugby to be found in those numbers.

Each game the Springboks played throughout 2019, however, is highlighted by one common factor. The clinical focus on achieving physical, and thus also mental dominance in every game was an integral part of the Springbok game plan.

And it remains the hallmark of the South African efforts at Rugby World Cup 2019.

If England had done their homework, they would have known that the South Africa they would face in the final would be a wholly different proposition to the one that played in the quarter and semifinals.

They must have known what to expect from the Springboks, and what the men in green and gold’s strategic plan would be.

Subdue & Penetrate.

A week back England had adopted precisely that strategy against the All Blacks. They had stopped the All Blacks from playing rugby the way the New Zealanders like to play rugby. They unleashed a power game that focussed on closing down the spaces the All Blacks love to play in. They threw a thoroughly committed pack of forwards at the All Blacks and denied them the physical and mental dominance that is so much of the All Blacks aura.

Deprived of space and field position the All Blacks somehow imploded and started playing silly rugby. England’s confidence soared and that was the end of the All Black challenge for the 2019 trophy. 

19 – 7 perhaps even flattered the All Blacks, so complete was the England domination on the day.

So complete was the job done on the All Blacks that England, not just the team but the country as a whole, began to believe.

Unfortunately for England, they then ran into the Springboks.

This is a battle-hardened Springbok outfit that have been playing the same kind of rugby England used against the All Blacks – only they have been doing it for a bit longer. And better.

The Springboks did to England what England had done to the All Blacks.

The Springboks stopped England from playing rugby the way they wanted to play rugby.

The Springboks stopped England’s power pack in their tracks. And then they shunted them back, time and again.

The Springboks stopped England’s huge and powerful primary ball carriers in their tracks, and they did it all afternoon. The Vunipola brothers did not get the go-forward they usually provide close in and Manu Tuilagi was stopped… well…. in his tracks.

The Springboks stopped England’s Plan B – the ball out the back from Ford to Farrell to send it out wide to the rapid running Jonny May and the stepping Anthony Watson. South Africa cut off the passes, forced the long passes, and shepherded England’s runners into contact. 

And then the Springboks stopped England’s Plan C too. With George Ford hooked off the field and Owen Farrell back in the flyhalf slot they started to launch high kicks in a desperate attempt to put pressure on the Springboks in the deep. They desperately tried to do a “South Africa” on the South Africans and kick, chase, make the tackle and force the penalty. Once again the Springboks were equal to the task, taking high ball after high ball, and then returning them with interest.

England, deprived of the kind of start that they got against the All Blacks, found themselves in the grip of a South African vice, a grip that slowly, surely, tightened and squeezed the life out of the men in white.

In an epic and attritional contest, South Africa’s power game proved too much for England.

There was a stretch of just short of five minutes that was probably the crux of this game – and the straw that broke the English camel’s back.

It went like this:

In the 29th minute the English forwards drive the ball into the Springbok 22m area, going to ground just on the chalk line that marks the edge of that so-called red zone. Billy Vunipola was the man to take it to ground, helped by his brother Mako. The ball was recycled, found its way to Tom Curry who carried it 10m into the Springbok 22 before being dragged to ground.

The clock said 29 min 40 seconds. 

For the next three and a half minutes England set up camp on the Springbok goal line, and then they threw everything they had in their tank at the Springboks.

They launched attack after attack after attack, through 23 phases of play, both pick-and-go and even some wide balls, as Billy and Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Maro Itoje and the rest of them threw themselves against the South Africa defence. Somebody crept offside and referee Garces signalled the advantage, which galvanized England’s efforts as they battered at the impenetrable barrier of Springboks, but it was not enough. 

That green wall held.

Not only did it hold inches from the line, but it forced the England attackers back, meter by meter, until they were forced to go wide, trying for the run on the outside, only to have Anthony Watson dragged down by Willie le Roux just inside the 22m area. Having made the crucial tackle, Le Roux was up in a flash and onto Owen Farrell, dragging him down as he tried to recycle the ball again. Faf de Klerk arrived and England’s chance was snuffed out, the referee blew the whistle to award the penalty for offside, and Owen Farrell looked at his forwards. Should they go for the lineout and try again? Did they have anything left in the tank? Was the belief there? 

He could see they were done. He opted for the 3-point penalty kick.

And right there – in the 33rd minute of the game, South Africa won the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

They had taken the very best England could throw at them, and repelled it. England’s chance to get back into the game was gone, and their collective confidence had taken a massive blow in the gut, while the Springbok resolve and self-belief simply grew with each subsequent moment of the game.

We could go on and analyse every move and every moment of this game, but those crucial four minutes provide the microcosm of this Rugby World Cup Final.

South African resolve and commitment had overcome the most severe test that England could offer

There were many sub-plots to the whole story of the Rugby World Cup Final, but none quite as revealing as that 4 minute period.

Throughout the 2019 Rugby World Cup there has been much talk about the “massive” South African pack of forwards and their unstoppable physicality and power that simply smashed lesser opponents.

This talk of “big buggers” if I may quote a certain Charles Windsor, is something of a myth.

The Springboks did not have the biggest pack at the Rugby World Cup. In fact England outweighed them 920kg to 900kg at the kick off. (A week earlier Wales had been, collectively, 60kg heavier than the Springboks!)

But what the Springboks did have was a pack of enormously strong men. Powerful, muscular, supremely fit, confident, and well drilled men. 

A squad of forwards that had refined their dark arts to the finest edge possible in the world of Test rugby. That is how they forced 6 scrum penalties out of the heavier and much fancied England pack in the first 40 minutes of this Test.

And when the starting tight five were done, there were five more powerful, muscular, supremely fit, confident and well drilled men waiting to come off the bench!

Such was the depth of the Springbok forwards that even the loss of Bongi Mbonambi and Lood de Jager in the 22nd minute of this game did nothing to lessen the focussed power brought to bear on the England pack.

This was a set-piece master-class by a wholly focussed pack of South African forwards. The only blip on their chart was a single penalty conceded to England in the second half, when the South Africans misread the English intent in a scrum, expecting a quick put-in, a hook to channel one, and the ball out before the Springboks could put the pressure on. The Springboks were starting to break for the chase when England put on a second shove and earned a clever penalty. Score one for England. They did not get much more than that.

There was yet another sub-plot that I picked up in this game. 

Last week England were happy to take the physicality to the All Blacks, yet this week they seemed just a tiny little but wary of taking the hit. 

They seemed to be waiting for the big Springbok defenders to clatter into them, and this forced them to second-guess themselves. Momentary hesitation by the likes of Youngs, Ford, and Farrell seemed to have become a communicable disease, and it triggered some silly moments. 

Trying to run yourself out of trouble from behind your goal line was a very Australian thing to do. It did not work for the Wallabies, and it did not work for England.

At times it seemed as if England were perhaps just a little scared of taking the tackle? Maybe my perception was flawed, but I did get the impression that the power of the Springbok defence had rattled the English players?

Yet another sub-plot can be found in the way the Springboks shut down the three big men that are England’s primary ball carriers.  

Billy  and Mako Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi are the proverbial centre-pivot of the England ball carrying plan. They are usually backed by Kyle Sinckler running support lines, but he had taken himself out of the game right at the start. The three England behemoths did their best to crack the green wall, but it was not quite enough. Sometimes they needed more than one tackler to bring them down, but they were stopped, time and again, depriving England of the opportunity to recycle quick front-foot ball and take the game at a bunch of retreating defenders.

Damian de Allende, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and Lukhanyo Am did not back off one inch as they took on the best that England could throw at them. It was brutal, and very effective.

Anther sub-plot?

If we move on to take a look at that other set-piece, the lineout, yet again the South African lineout was wholly focussed on putting pressure on hooker Jamie George and his jumpers, starting early on as Eben Etzebeth made his presence felt and disrupted a throw.

The South African lineout functioned well, usually with Eben Etzebeth being the primary “banker ball” jumper, and setting frequent mauls, although England found a way to disrupt the maul on a number of occasions, binding and then walking around the maul to pull or splinter it apart. Effective, clever too, but without causing any serious disruption to possession once the maul had broken down.

The next sub-plot to this drama was Rassie Erasmus’ clever use of his “Bomb Squad” – the bench, sometimes called the “finishers” by some of the world’s coaches.

Erasmus’ persistence with a 6-2 forward/back split on the bench was doubted by some pundits, but it was a well thought out strategy and it paid dividends in two ways. 

First and foremost was the quality of the players coming off the bench. Consider those forwards – Kitshoff, Marx, Koch, Mostert, Snyman, and Louw. Six forwards that could start a Test for any team in the world, including the Springboks. These are no second-stringers, these are fully fledged starting players, each capable of playing the full 80 minutes of a Test match.

With that bench, the Springboks have the benefit of rotating six of their eight starting forwards as the game progresses, with only the huge engine of Pieter-Steph du Toit and the indefatigable Duane Vermeulen playing the full 80 minutes of a Test.

The strategy means that the Springboks had 12 of their forwards who were all relatively fresh on the day of the final – none had been overplayed through the pool stages, and none had been overplayed in the playoffs.

And it showed on the field of play. When the front rowers Mtawarira and Malherbe had chewed, trampled, bounced and manhandled the England front row into something resembling jelly for around 40 minutes, on came Kitshoff and Koch to continue the pain. The loss of De Jager and Mbonambi fairly early in the piece did not have a serious impact on the team, as the reserves, Mostert and Marx, were fresh enough to tackle a full game if that was required of them.

The Bomb Squad worked.

The next vignette to be considered was the contest for the ball in the rucks and at the breakdown. Much was expected of the combination of Curry and Underhill, two fine chasers and fetchers of the rugby ball. The nay-sayers had said that the Springbok loose trio were too big, too slow, and too clumsy to counter the English harriers. Whoever it was that said that Siya Kolisi is too slow and that Pieter-Steph du Toit was a re-treaded lock forward forgot to tell them that they were supposed to play second fiddle to the Englishmen. 

The two South Africans, ably assisted by their midfielders, especially De Allende, and backed by Marx and Vermeulen, applied some truly serious pressure at the breakdowns and over the ruck ball. 

And they did it legally! 

The strength of the Springboks over the ball in ruck gave the referee no reason to blow his whistle, and England were forced to play off the backfoot with slow ball. It did not suit them that their scrumhalf Youngs was having an off day too.

In the final analysis, this Springbok pack’s performance was probably one of the most abrasive, efficient, and accurate of all time. 

They were supported by a back-division that were equally committed, equally focussed, equally physical, equally abrasive, and equally accurate as they snuffed the English candle. 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Springbok back play was their composure throughout the game, with the communication and rapidity of the resetting of the defensive lines worthy of special comment. 

Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am have gelled into one of the most defensively solid midfield units in the world, and their communication has developed with each game they play as partners.

Willie le Roux, much maligned by various social media commentators and the subject of all manner of jokes, memes, and often positively insulting remarks during the week since the Wales game, had a superb outing at fullback. He was safe under the high ball, brave too, while his left-footed tactical kicking was pinpoint, and his early injection into the line served notice that he was on his game again. However his real value, so often underestimated by the keyboard warriors calling for his head, is his influence and direction on defence. His management of the back three’s defensive pendulum was again spot on, while his own tackling was out of the top drawer. None quite as important as the tackle he made on Anthony Watson in the 33rd minute. If he had missed Watson, England were sure to score. Le Roux did not miss. It was a game defining tackle.

The old saying of form being temporary and class permanent is illustrated by Willie le Roux.

Le Roux was integral to the organisation of the backline’s contribution to the all-out defensive effort when England laid siege to the Springbok line in the 29th to 33rd minute.

Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard, the Springbok half-back pairing controlled this game with some really serious accuracy. De Klerk varied the pace of the game superbly, speeding it up and slowing it down at will. Sometimes it seemed that he was taking a breather and allowing all his support players time to do up their laces and reset their mouthguards before he passed the ball, at others he was on it in an instant and the ball was gone before the English forwards could set their defences. As a game-within-a-game he was toying with England as he kept them guessing, unsure about his next move. It was very clever scrumhalf play.

Handré Pollard must surely be as close to the best flyhalf in the world as it could get.  His pinpoint aerial game caused England problem after problem, especially as he introduced uncertainty in their minds, was he going to run, pass or kick? The height he put on his kicks, both out-of-hand and at the restarts were key in allowing South African chasers the time to get to the kick-receiver and prevent a workable exit strategy. He is no Beauden Barrett with the ball in hand, but he does have the pace and the size to create real problems when he runs with the ball, and this forced England’s defenders to stay close and focus on hunting him down. 

Equally important is his own tackling. In the modern game flyhalves often leave the defensive work to others, preferring to drop back into the last line of defence, but not Pollard. He mans up and makes the hits!

The bonus, of course, is that his  goal-kicking was also rock solid. 

In this game, he was the calm general who marshalled his defensive forces, used his artillery to good effect, and unleashed the cavalry when the time was right. 

The longer the game wore on, the more it became evident that England were being shut out by a superlative and clinical Springbok performance. England were forced to play catch-up rugby all afternoon. Even when they came within touching distance, almost immediately they would be back in trouble, conceding a penalty, and Pollard’s trusty boot was putting distance between the two sides on the scoreboard.

The same scoreboard pressure that England had brought to bear on the All Blacks, was now starting to drag at their own psyche.

It was classic Subdue & Penetrate rugby, grinding the opposition down, step by step, until the cracks started to show, and then striking.

A couple of early opportunities presented themselves, but the Springboks were not yet in full attack mode and those promising moments were lost, perhaps through silly errors, yet those moments paid off as they heaped pressure on England’s defences, forcing England into two minds – should they to hang back and wait for the expected box-kick or up-and-under, or should they rush to close down the spaces? 

When the defence is in two minds, the opportunities will start to show themselves, especially later in a game when the lungs are sucking a bit and the instincts have slowed a tad.

And so it was.

In the 67th minute England’s wide defence on the right was left slightly ajar. Two hulking forwards were defending the wing channel. Lukhanyo Am started it. Made a meter or two, drawing a forward onto him, then passed the ball to Malcolm Marx, who then made the initial breach as England ran out of defenders, he gave a flat pass on to a steaming Mapimpi. Mapimpi made some meters and then chipped ahead into open space. It was a beautiful chip kick. The race was on. The bounce favoured a hard chasing Lukhanyo Am, who took the ball and flipped it straight out to the flying winger. There was no one home for England and Mapimpi dotted down as South Africans in the stands and across the globe erupted.

English heads were down, shoulders slumped as they trudged back to wait for the conversion kick. This was the moment when they knew, deep inside, that their dream was over.

England did not simply roll over and submit, but their fire was gone now and six minutes later Cheslin Kolbe ran through a weak tackle attempt by Owen Farrell to hammer the final nail into the England coffin.

Back in 2015, when Eddie Jones coached Japan to their remarkable victory over South Africa, I headlined my review of that game “Outthought, outcoached, outplayed and outsmarted.” Eddie Jones did all of those things to Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer.

Last weekend I repeated that line, when I suggested that the self-same Eddie Jones had once again “Outthought, outcoached, outplayed and outsmarted” a rival coach. This time it was Steve Hansen who was on the receiving end of Eddie’s machinations. 

This week it Eddie Jones’ turn to feel what it is like to be “Outthought, outcoached, outplayed and outsmarted.”

Rassie Erasmus is a canny coach with a remarkable understanding of players and the game of rugby. This Rugby World Cup stands as evidence of his ability to Outthink, Outcoach, Outplay, and Outsmart any coach in the world. This was an intellectual and tactical masterclass by the coach.

Well done Rassie Erasmus and your team of coaches.

But, no matter how good the coach and how inspirational his words and leadership, when the boots take to the grass and the brains and brawn of the combatants are tested, that is when the real men stand up.

Take a bow Siya Kolisi and your Rainbow Warriors – You are REAL men.

Individual Player Assessments

15 Willie le Roux 7/10

Proof that class is permanent and form temporary. Had a great game under the high ball, with some very brave takes. Was quickly into the game with an early break that said that his confidence was coming back. Looked to create space with ball in hand. Marshalled the last line of defence superbly. Made some really important tackles too.

14 Cheslin Kolbe 7/10

If bravery had a name it would be Cheslin. When the diminutive winger climbed aboard the massive Billy Vunipola it was simply evidence that he does not shirk at anything. And then he stopped Manu Tuilagi too. A quiet first half as the game flowed away from him, though he was constantly popping up at the right time and in the right place as part of the back-three defensive unit. A superbly taken try when given the ball by PS du Toit and just enough room to get those feet moving.

13 Lukhanyo Am 7/10

His best game in a Bok jersey. He manned up and stopped Manu Tuilagi time and again, a job many lesser men have failed to do. His work at marshalling the defensive lines during moments of stress was exemplary. Took his eyes off the ball a moment too soon in a short-side attack that might have had some legs, but then made a great break from deep. His chase, collect and pass for Mapimpi’s try was out of the top drawer. Has learned the art of staying in the tackle from De Allende and forced England to counter ruck on a couple of occasions. 

12 Damian de Allende 8/10

A commanding presence in the midfield, he is the kingpin of the rush defence, and, boy, does he clatter into his opponents! His physicality and presence in the midfield kept opponents honest. Made 60 meters with 12 hard carries, and his presence over the ball in the tackle suggests that he could find a second career as a flanker! A couple of sublime passes and offloads too.

11 Makazole Mapimpi 7/10

One of his best games, especially chasing and competing for kicks. 48 meters with the ball in hand, and made the yards, chipped ahead and then followed to score a superbly taken try. Gave Anthony Watson much to think about, until the England wing started to get frustrated and try some dirty tricks.

10 Handré Pollard 8/10

A masterclass in how to control a game from the 10 slot. Cool, calm, focussed, despite a couple of early moments, including a slip when he had time with the ball. Made some testing runs with the ball in hand, chased his own and other kicks well, and kicked out of hand with assurance and accuracy. One clever cross-kick might have given an opportunity on another day. An early miss, and then the goal-kicking was back on target too. Rock solid defence.

9 Francois de Klerk 8/10

Boy is he a nuisance or what? His defensive efforts are legendary as he clatters into the biggest men and clings on until they fall. His service was crisp and accurate, while his box-kicking was pinpoint and troublesome for the English. I enjoyed his variation of the pace of the game as a mini-masterclass of a scrumhalf controlling the game. He is the heartbeat of this team!

8 Duane Vermeulen 10/10

I do not give anyone a 10/10 in my player reviews. Ever.

Except for today, for Duane Vermeulen. 

Wow, what a powerful display of sheer physicality, massive hits, massive carries, massive cleanouts, superb takes of the kicked ball,  and a serious menace over the ball at breakdowns. His focus and intent were positively scary. Won a penalty turnover early in the piece. Ball control at the back of the scrum was exemplary, and that quiet, unblinking focus and leadership was a huge contributor to the team’s own calm focus. A powerful man playing power rugby.

7 Pieter-Steph du Toit 9/10

I do not have words to describe the man I believe to be the best forward in world rugby. His hits were crunching, his carries powerful, and his presence in the lineouts caused England to abandon their own back-of-lineout tactics. It is not just his tackles that make him special, but his tackle assists are the stuff of coaching manuals. His work in the mauls, both on attack and on defence cannot be underestimated. When they say this man has a huge engine, they are actually underestimating how big that engine really is. A magnificent game.

6 Siya Kolisi 8/10

The captain has grown in stature in this World Cup, and this game was his best yet. Quiet, calm, controlled, exuding authority. He is not confrontational with the referees (take note Michael Hooper) and knows how to get them on his side. A solid performance in general play, quicker to the ball than many expected. 12 tackles, of which some were dominant and knocked the England players back. Very good counter rucking. Instrumental in neutralising England’s much vaunted back row as he cleaned out the rucks with aggression and serious accuracy. 

5 Lodewyk de Jager 7/10

Sadly left the field after 20 odd minutes. Had shown that he was up for a big one with some serious carrying and massive tackles. 

4 Eben Etzebeth 8/10

His presence in the lineouts is almost surreal. He worries opponents simply by being there! And then he contests the lineouts and they know why they are worried by him! Some powerful carries and 13 solid tackles. Neutralised, if not totally shut out Courtney Lawes, as he took a lineout steal from the England man. Put pressure on Maro Itoje too.  Some powerful counter-rucking. One subtle little offload to Damian de Allende just to show that he can play with the ball too.

3 Frans Malherbe 8/10

South Africa’s secret weapon in the scrums. He is so unassuming that many do not notice him, on the field or off the field. Yet those that have to scrum down against him will tell you he is one of the strongest men in the rugby world. Mako Vunipola was called the “best loosehead in the world” a week ago, after his game against the All Blacks. Nobody told Frans Malherbe, and he probably would not have taken any notice anyway. He simply crumpled the England man in scrum after scrum. For the purist of scrummaging technique, it was a thing of beauty. His work rate elsewhere on the field is also vastly underestimated. He made 10 tackles in 40 minutes on the field, two of them of the “smashing” variety. His defence close in during England’s three minute siege in the first half was superb. His cleanouts at the ruck were fierce.

2 Mbongeni Mbonambi 6/10

Was just getting into his stride when he had to leave the field, protesting that there was nothing wrong with his head. One good carry and three good tackles, and pinpoint lineouts again. But that was the end of his contribution. 

1 Tendai Mtawarira 8/10

A couple of years ago I suggested that the Beast had reached retirement age and that it was time to go. Somewhere he has found the Elixir of Youth and is back at his very very best. Really powerful scrumming, winning crucial penalties. A couple of carries, eight tackles. One of his better days in the front office.


16 Malcolm Marx 8/10 (on for Mbonambi, 22nd minute):

His physical presence was enormous as he got stuck right in with some strong carries, and 10 big tackles. A nuisance at the breakdown he was instrumental in shutting out Curry and Underhill.  

17 Steven Kitshoff 8/10 (on for Mtawarira, 45th minute):

It can be no fun at all to see off the Beast, only to see the Big Ginger coming at you. A huge impact from the first scrum after he came on. Some big tackles and big cleanouts too. A couple of carries.

18 Vincent Koch 8/10 (on for Malherbe, 45th minute):

His best outing in green and gold. He arrived to carry on where Frans Malherbe had left off, and simply carried on the demolition job on Mako Vunipola in the scrums. Gave Joe Marker the same medicine, although he was distracted in one scrum, thinking that the ball was out. 8 big tackles.

19 Rudolph Snyman 7/10 (on for Etzebeth, 60th minute):

Not quite as influential as the man he replaced, but kept the pressure on England throughout. Some strong carries, and a couple of good tackles. 

20 Franco Mostert 8/10 (on for De Jager, 22nd minute):

Okay, so he could have started too. Massive work rate, especially in the hard stuff where angels fear to go. A couple of carries and 17 tackles, the most of all the players from either team.

21 Francois Louw 7/10 (on for Kolisi, 64th minute):

Perhaps not quite as influential as the man he replaced, but did nothing wrong. By the time he arrived the Springboks already had their hands on the trophy.

22 Herschel Jantjies (on for De Klerk, 77th minute):

A three-minute vignette. Not enough time to be rated.

23 Frans Steyn (on for Le Roux, 69th minute):

One huge kick, and then a cruise as England’s game was blown and he was not asked to do any serious defending or anything else in his 11 minutes. Did nothing wrong, which is important.


15. Elliot Daly 4/10

Was caught out by some clever kicks by Pollard and De Klerk, but he defended well enough. Did not look comfortable at fullback. Beaten in the air by Mapimpi and then fumbled a bouncing ball. 

14. Anthony Watson 5/10

Was shut down and frustrated by the Springbok defence, although he showed willingness to chase at every chance. Was the best of England’s backs at handling the high balls that the Springboks sent at them. A silly change of running line and obstructive nudge on Mapimpi cost England 3 points.

13.Manu Tuilagi 5/10

Was expected to be the kingpin of England’s backline attack, but was shut down by the Springboks and not given the chance to build momentum. A couple of very good tackles, but otherwise, just a little anonymous.

12.Owen Farrell 5/10

Did not get the kind of good ball he likes to play with, and was shut down time and again. Made some good decisions, although that pass inside the England in-goal might have been a little worrisome. Made four of his five kicks and never stopped trying.

11. Jonny May 5/10

Tried hard, but was denied the space that allows him to get his feet going. Made some good carries, and chased hard. A great jump to stop a penalty going into touch, although replays showed that he had a foot on the line when he leapt up, but missed by a certain M. Poite. 

10. George Ford 3/10

Had no influence on the game, missed a high ball, kicked out on the full. His handling was poor and he seemed rattled. Methinks the pressure from the Springbok harriers got to him.

9. Ben Youngs 3/10

A poor game, with England’s two-scrumhalf squad pick backfiring with Willie Heinz’s injury as his backup Spencer had only joined the team in the days before the final. Passing and decision-making was below par. And his box-kicking was too deep time and again. Rattled by the pressure?

8. Billy Vunipola 5/10

Exposed as something of a one trick pony. As a ball carrier close in and in the midfield he is as good as any, and even bent the Springbok line, but without breaking it. But he does very little else in terms of attacking play. Too slow, ponderous even, to run supporting lines in the wider channels, he simply stays back to set up another forward pod attack if the ball comes his way. This tactic works well, mostly, but was anulled by the ferocity of the Springbok defence. Wholly outplayed by Duane Vermeulen.

7. Sam Underhill 7/10

One of the better English forwards, I was surprised that he was pulled off so early in the game. Made some massive tackles, and was quick and physical across the field. His work over the ball was neutralised by a determined Springbok effort, but he can look back and say that he had a good day at the office.

6. Tom Curry 6/10

Made some very good tackles and carried well, although he seemed to wilt a little under the physical challenge of the Springbok forwards. Lost a ball in the backfield once and was physically held up in the carry by Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Became a bit anonymous in the last quarter.

5. Courtney Lawes 5/10

Probably England’s best ball carrier in the first half, but seemed a little rattled by the attentions of Etzebeth in the lineouts, although he did take the ball cleanly four times. His lack of power as a scrummager saw him hauled off at half-time.

4. Maro Itoje 7/10

Some suggest that this was a quiet game by Itoje’s own standards. I would say that he was simply forced to play tighter than usual in an attempt to stem the flow of the Springbok forwards. He was a nuisance around the fringes and especially in breaking apart the Springbok maul. Tackled like a man possessed. One of the few England forwards who seemed to retain his focus and intensity right to the end. 

3. Kyle Sinckler No Rating

Unfortunately, he had to leave the pitch after just two minutes as he was knocked out when he ran into Itoje’s elbow.

2. Jamie George 4/10

Just seemed to be overwhelmed by the Springbok onslaught. His lineouts were good, although one was stolen. Poor in the scrum. One poor offload to Anthony Watson.

1. Mako Vunipola 4/10

His scrummaging was found wanting and he earns a 1/10 for the set-piece work. However, he worked hard in the loose, and tackled well, which helps him earn the 4/10 rating.


16. Luke Cowan-Dickie 5/10

Introduced too late to make a difference, he was slightly better than the man he replaced in making two good lineout throws and one powerful carry.

17. Joe Marler 5/10

Managed to get one over Vincent Koch when the Springbok scrum was not focussed on staying in the contest, made some tackles, but was anonymous for the rest of his time on the field. Struggled when the Springbok scrum was focussed.

18. Dan Cole 3/10

He will not want us to talk about his game. It was a tough day at the office as he was Beasted and then Gingered.  

19. George Kruis 5/10

Solidified the scrummaging a little, and became England’s lineout option after he came onto the field. But did not do much else.

20. Mark Wilson 5/10

I suppose the word “energetic” is about the best thing we can say. He chased all over the field, and tackled well. Nothing else.

21. Ben Spencer

My notes do not tell me when he came on and I did not notice him on the field. I will be kind and thus say: Not enough time to be rated.

22. Henry Slade 3/10

Turned over the ball in the tackle, allowing Pieter-Steph du Toit to pick it up and release Kolbe for his try. That is all we can say about Henry Slade. 

23. Jonathan Joseph 3/10

Arrived late in the piece, and only made some tackles. Nothing else.


  1. One of your finest columns Bill! Great work! If I may suggest something – would you not like to add something about the ref? Certainly I believe that he had a very competent game.
    Regarding your ratings – I have read quite a few in the last 2 days, but certainly rate yours as the best. (Maybe I am a little biased, but you seem to pick up on issues that others omit or ignore.

    • Thanks Jonathan. I am one of those that still believes that the referee should be invisible and not require comment. The Great Game, the All Blacks vs the Barbarians 1973 is still my benchmark for the best of the best – and I have no idea who the referee was on that day. That is the way it should always be. Jerome Garces, for once in his career, reached that sublime level of anonymity. I doubt whether he will achieve those heights again.

  2. So much has been written about this epic final, I have not seen anything that comes close to this highly informed analysis. Thanks, Bill, superb writing, I wish I had started reading you years ago.

    Eddie Jones says he cannot really explain the England loss. You have the answer: a steady compounding effect of Bok might in the scrum, incredible defence and variety in attack: kicking, running, offloading…The Boks had been practicing this for months, how come no-one noticed? England suffered the reverse: multiple setbacks that combined, accumulated, amplified and eventually sank them. Matt Dawson before the game said England could win playing at 80% which indicates that he thought the Boks at least 20% inferior to England. More incredibly, immediately after the game on the BBC Live 5 broadcast most of the discussion on the loss was 1) why England had not approached the ref about the scrums, 2) how to “legally cheat” to win games and other such hogwash. Maybe 2 mins out of 30 was on the Bok play. Either as players or commentators England did not or could not confront reality on match day. Nor, as you say Bill, had they studied what the Boks were capable of.

    Last word for Rassie: for 80 mins he had 15 guys who knew exactly what they had to do and did it perfectly. It took him 18 months to fine-tune this team, an incredible achievement in the annals of coaching, whatever the sport.