Monday 18 November 2019

Long game could work a treat for Boks coach ahead of final push

South Africa 19 Wales 16

Centre of excellence: South Africa player Damian de Allende dives to score his try against Wales. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Centre of excellence: South Africa player Damian de Allende dives to score his try against Wales. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When he named his team to face Wales on Thursday, Rassie Erasmus admitted to looking beyond the semi-final with his decision to take Cheslin Kolbe out of the firing line.

He knew he could beat the Welsh without his most feared attacker who has been struggling with injury in recent weeks, and now we know why. Playing attacking rugby was never part of his plan.

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It is said on the circuit that the missing piece of the former Munster supremo's jigsaw is the attacking side of the game.

In his time in Ireland he was able to get the defence up to a high standard, and the conservative game-plan took Munster to a semi-final against Saracens and a final against Scarlets, where they ran aground against teams at a more advanced stage of their development.

In Yokohama he was at pains to stress how far behind England his South Africa team are, but he knows he has the athletes to drag Eddie Jones' men into a physical battle.

He just needed to keep them fresh, so he told Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard to put boot to ball, and they did so repeatedly. It was a horrible watch, so much so that a host of neutrals headed for the exits at half-time.

The drama increased as the second-half went on, with Josh Adams cancelling out Damian de Allende's try and Rhys Patchell missing a drop-goal before Pollard put it to bed. But there was always a sense that the Boks had it within them to win, even if they left it a little too close for comfort.

Now they turn their attention to recovering from a game where they made only 71 carries, with 142 tackles.

Erasmus has picked six forwards on his bench throughout to lighten the load on his starters, but he has options among those subs to come into the starting XV if he needs to freshen things up. The bearded behemoth RG Snyman, for example, could be just the man to test Maro Itoje's credentials.

In the quarter-final New Zealand blew Ireland away but couldn't back it up a week later. England gave an era-defining performance against the All Blacks on Saturday and their challenge is to reach that level again, winning the World Cup by beating all four Rugby Championship nations.

Leigh Halfpenny and Lood de Jager jump for a high ball. Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Leigh Halfpenny and Lood de Jager jump for a high ball. Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Rhys Patchell of Wales misses a drop goal attempt as Faf de Klerk of South Africa pressures. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Josh Adams of Wales is tackled by Faf de Klerk and S'busiso Nkosi. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Mbongeni Mbonambi (L) celebrates with teammates Tendai Mtawarira (C) and Siya Kolisi, after their Rugby World Cup semi-final victory. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

South Africa will feel they haven't hit top gear since their opening defeat to New Zealand when they took the All Blacks into a war. Next Saturday would be the perfect time to deliver just that.

Defeated coach Warren Gatland said South Africa have what it takes to win the whole thing, but suggested they'd need to play a bit more expansively to do so.

When asked about his comments, Erasmus smiled.

"It's great to hear that Warren thinks we can go all the way," he said.

"We're a team that's been together for 24 or 25 Test matches.

"When we have personnel changes and we play teams with different styles, we have to adapt. If we play a team like New Zealand with a fast running game, we're used to that. Wales have a long kicking game and it's difficult for us to run from our 22.

"I think he's right, there are definitely some areas in our game which must improve but we've given ourselves a chance. We've played England four times in the last 18 months and it's 2-2, so we're accustomed with the way they play.

"They're obviously much better than the last time we played them, you could see that last night with the way they dismantled New Zealand. We think we're in with a chance. We've got a six-day turnaround.

"I'm not 100pc sure if a World Cup final is going to be won by a very expansive game plan with wonderful tries. It might be, I might be wrong. I think we will go and grind it out."

For the players on the pitch who knew they had the ball-carriers to hurt Wales and the pace out wide to test the famed Shaun Edwards defence, the sole focus was sticking to the plan.

They didn't want to get sucked into playing from deep, so they reverted to a 2007-esque percentage-based approach that will win them few friends, but got them into a repeat of the final from that year.

"The boys embraced the occasion," Pollard suggested.

"Our forwards were unbelievable. It's not always visible, but the way they took Wales' legs away made a big difference towards the end of the match. A lot of credit to our forward pack.

"Wales don't give anything away. We went in with that mindset, to try and be more patient than them, to keep putting it back onto them when they're putting it back onto us.

"Sometimes it worked for them, sometimes for us. We were patient enough tonight."

England represent a very different challenge having announced themselves on Saturday night, even if Gatland couldn't resist offering the opinion that they could struggle to attain the same performance levels next weekend.

"We have seen teams play their final in the semi-final and don't turn up for the final. We will see what England do," the Wales coach said, before focusing on trying to get his own team right for the prospect of facing his native New Zealand on a five-day turnaround in a ludicrous third-place play-off.

The main event is a mouth-watering prospect, a clash of styles between two teams packed with power.

Springboks forward Lood de Jager believes his team must go to another place to get over the line and join New Zealand as the only team to win three World Cups.

"They're definitely favourites," he said. "If you beat the All Blacks by 12 points, you're going to be the favourite... but we have a foot in the door and anything can happen.

"South Africa's a tough place to grow up. You need to bring that out. We don't psyche each other up and bang our heads against the wall.

"There's a lot of stuff. It's dangerous. It's a lovely country and I love it but it's a tough place to grow up.

"Our captain (Siya Kolisi) grew up in a township. Go there and see for yourself. A lot of people grew up in tough places and rural places and they need to bring that out.

"He's a big inspiration. There's a lot of guys that came from poverty and really tough circumstances to make it to this level. It's great playing with those guys and you draw some inspiration from that."

It's powerful stuff from powerful men.

England looked to put one hand on the trophy on Saturday night, but Erasmus is good at playing the long game. There might be a twist yet.

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