Sunday 17 November 2019

Brent Pope: 'Rassie Erasmus almost made a fatal error right after half time - but England couldn't capitalise'

Rassie Erasmus took off his entire front row early in the second half, but it paid off for South Africa. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Rassie Erasmus took off his entire front row early in the second half, but it paid off for South Africa. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Brent Pope

Eddie Jones, all smiles during the week, can be forgiven for looking to the heavens and asking himself how it all went wrong.

Just over a week ago, Jones asked the media to raise their hands if they thought England could topple the mighty All Blacks –  nobody thought it possible.

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This week, South African coach Rassie Erasmus could have asked the same group of assembled experts if any of them thought that South Africa would beat England in the final.

All week, we heard how the English were relaxed, eased back on the physical demands in training, and were, as Jones said, just 'looking to enjoy the occasion'.

He may think a little differently now, and in retrospect he may have had his team hitting the scrum machine more, for starters.

This World Cup has been amazing, simply because the form book has been ripped up on so many occasions. South Africa are the first side to lose a pool match and then go on to win the tournament. The All Blacks convincingly beat the Springboks in round one, thrashed Ireland and then were thrashed themselves by England, who in turn got hammered by South Africa.

It was a bookmaker’s dream. But on Saturday, the Springboks rocked England on their heels from the opening minute and never allowed the favourites to settle. From the very first scrum, England were in serious trouble, and the old cliché of 'no scrum, no win' rang true.

When England lost their ball-playing prop Kyle Sinckler through an unfortunate head clash with Mario Itoje’s elbow, it meant an early entry for veteran scrummager Dan Cole.

We have heard over the years that Cole was a superior scrummaging tighthead who lacked Sinckler’s ability around the field. In the aftermath, it will be a day that Cole will want to forget as from that moment on, England’s chariot lost its wheels.

England conceded a record 15 points from scrum penalties alone and that’s where the damage seeped from. Some loose passing, a lack of any real structure and nerves added to their misery and England went steadily and quickly downhill, unable to stop the malaise or build any continuity or momentum.

England had a slight window just before half time when they crashed and bashed at the Springbok line, but despite conceding a penalty, converted by Farrell, it was a moral victory for the Boks. They had held England out, something even the All Blacks had failed to do.

The body language between the two teams told the story at the break, and while the Springboks floated off the field, sprinting to hear the advice of their coach, the English players gathered in a circle trying to find a way back into a game that was steadily getting away from them.

The second half started a bit better for the English, when it looked like Erasmus had made a fatal error in replacing his dominant front row just three minutes into the second spell, and with Joe Marler now in the English cockpit, England suddenly won a scrum penalty of their own.

Was the tide changing? Farrell missed the resulting kick at goal to keep them in touch and minutes later, South Africa had another three points on the board, the cushion they needed.

Two tries near the end was just the icing on the cake, with the two smallest men on the park making huge contributions throughout, the gritty defence of scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and the quick-stepping feet of winger Cheslin Kolbe, who must be the best attacking back in the world.

England had not only been beaten, they had hardly been given a chance to play. The English backs, so creative against the All Blacks a week earlier, never created a single memorable line break, because the South African defence never let them breathe.

During the build-up it was all England. Rassie Erasmus had shrewdly taken all the pressure off his team, announcing his move to director of rugby and quietly going about his business but he left the best to last.

He united a country behind this team and in captain Siya Kolisi, he had found the heartbeat, an inspirational leader who came from impoverished beginnings, an articulate, humble giant who would pull this team together.

Kolisi’s after-match speech was one of the greatest ever, when he spoke of the challengers his country faced and how if they could unite as a team then maybe the country could follow.

Those simple yet emotional sentiments did so much for racial equality in a country torn at the seams. And when you saw what it meant to the townships all across South Africa, you knew that this win was as meaningful as the Mandela win in 1995.

England will be bitterly, bitterly disappointed. They had produced perhaps the greatest ever win against the All Blacks a week earlier and had been the form team of the tournament. They had dreamed of this moment for four years, poured millions into resources to get another win.

This was to be to be England’s year but someone forgot to tell Erasmus. England had in many ways played their final the week earlier and when asked if they could back it up, they came unstuck. For some England players the scars will never heal, reflected in their demeanour when collecting their runner-up medals.

This has been a brilliant World cup for many reasons – for the Japanese and the way they set the template for how we want to see the game played and their humble, respectful nature and for the skill shown by so many teams and the sportsmanship between nations coming together for the love of sport.

It was my pleasure to travel to Japan and I hope that this tournament paves the way to growing the game in other countries. There have been many moments of pleasure and pain and that includes Ireland, who bid farewell to two warriors in their coach and captain.

To the winner go the spoils, and congratulations to a wonderful performance and a third William Webb Ellis for the mighty Boks.

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