Thursday 14 November 2019

Neil Francis: 'Stand up and take a bow Joe Schmidt — the Springboks used your game plan to win the World Cup'

South Africa's Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Cup as South Africa celebrate winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup final at Yokohama Stadium. David Davies/PA Wire.
South Africa's Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Cup as South Africa celebrate winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup final at Yokohama Stadium. David Davies/PA Wire.
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On Saturday, November 11, 2017, Ireland played South Africa at the Aviva Stadium.

It was a calm, crisp, autumnal day. Ireland won 38-3, four tries to nil and South Africa were lucky to get three points or even a cuddly toy.

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In the frenzied aftermath there was a further sense of belief that in less than two years' time Ireland could do something special. For Allister Coetzee, this was one embarrassment too many and he was dispatched from his position as head coach shortly after Christmas.

Watching that day from the stands was Rassie Erasmus, a man with more than a passing interest in the result. Rassie had just left as head coach of Munster and the manner of his leaving still rankles. When the call came he was in a strong position with SA Rugby. If they wanted him, things would have to be done his way. That was why he had left his role in South Africa in the first place.

On the pitch that November day were 12 players who were involved in yesterday’s World Cup final in Yokohama. Erasmus realised quickly that he would have to change the SA Rugby statutes on overseas players and from that change in direction he managed to entice Willie le Roux, Francois Steyn, Duane Vermeulen and the Barbie doll Faf de Klerk back into the Springbok squad. Some of them moved back to South Africa altogether.

What else did they take from Ireland when they left? Well, it was something tangible and the man South Africa have to credit most with their World Cup victory was watching the game at home in Dublin. Stand up and take a bow Joe Schmidt — the Springboks were using your game plan. While it did not work for Ireland it worked a treat for South Africa.

There was, though, more than one dimension to how the Springboks played. Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and while you don’t begrudge South Africa the manner of their victory, you do think that the team that played the best and most edifying rugby got ran out the gate at the semi-final stage. Edifying Smedifying!

More than anything South Africa trusted each other and they played with the sort of verve that is backboned by unshakeable self-belief. They never relented and they sustained their effort throughout the 80. You always find that you can think and act quicker when there is trust in the team.

You have to hand it to Wazza! Even in the dying embers of his reign Warren Gatland managed to get a last blow in by suggesting that England might have peaked in their outstanding semi-final performance against New Zealand, who curiously were as lethargic as England were yesterday.

I am certain that England were not over-burdened by the mantle of favouritism and whereas Eddie Jones, got his game plan absolutely right for the New Zealand game he had a conundrum on how to play South Africa. England were neither big enough to out-muscle the Springboks nor smart enough to out-think them and that ultimately undid them.

We may think the game has changed over the decades but the evidence in the final told us that if you master the fundamentals you will win. We know also that crazy things happen in high-pressure games and so it proved.

This though was not a tactical masterclass by Erasmus. He merely instructed Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard to kick like Sexton and Murray and get chasers underneath the ball. They won the kick-chase battle convincingly and in the process exposed Elliot Daly’s vulnerability in this area. Daly was one of those players that England needed to be at the top of his game and he was a long way short.

The conventional view is that the game was decided at scrum time — and that, to a certain extent, is correct. I was certain that the two kamikaze kids, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, would be the combination to decide this game, that their relentless work-rate at the breakdown and the dizzying number of tackles they make in open field would swing the game towards England. The two also seem to have enough energy to get on the ball and do so intelligently.

But you have to perform the mundane acts in this game of ours and you have to scrummage. When you include two auxiliary backs into your pack who have a penchant for getting into the outfield then you might just forget your primary duties. England conceded 15 points from scrum penalties and the finger of blame will be pointed at Dan Cole who is a genuine cast-iron penalty machine and who never seems to be bothered about what his team-mates think as he looks at the referee while retreating from a collapsed scrum and shaking his head in disbelief.

When the ball got to Vermeulen’s feet at scrum time both England’s flankers had detached from the scrum. Eight against six, with the Springboks in the mood for an arm-wrestle, leaves only one winner. They may have copped what to do in the second half and stayed down and bound but at that stage the Springboks had got the scoreboard ticking over and had ascendancy in a vital area in the game. This had a tiny imperceptible influence on the game. It meant that every time the Springboks had a scrum, England’s poachers and jackals had to stay connected to it.

Other little areas of advantage suddenly started to appear. England flooded their back-field with receivers waiting to play and counter South Africa's kicking game. Just at the right moment South Africa, once or twice, threw the ball out along the line and England, not expecting South Africa to change from the game plan, had to scramble to make their tackles.

It may have escaped your notice that in the first five minutes of the game South Africa had thrown the ball around like the Harlem Globetrotters to fool England into thinking that this was going to be an open and loose game. This forced England to think again and for the following 35 minutes South Africa played kick chase and crucially worked themselves into a lead. It then became a game of cat and mouse until the game loosened up in the last quarter. At that stage England’s creeping errors hadn’t abated and Anthony Watson gave away a silly penalty for a stupid tackle off the ball on Makazole Mapimpi.

This was a game where I would have bet the house on several yellows but curiously nobody crossed the threshold.

Both teams kept a certain level of discipline but England’s hold was always more tenuous. As they began chasing the game, they were turned over again and it was those Joe Schmidt moments when three or four opportunities present themselves and the attacking nous that was dormant for nearly the whole game suddenly flashes into action.

Mapimpi’s chip over the top right at the touchline was so deliciously positioned that you knew that it was going to sit up for Lukhanyo Am and a no-look pass back outside to the Springbok wing practically sealed the game. The Springboks are not known for packing the short side and getting short passes away in a narrow channel. Whose play book did that come out of?

It was interesting that Malcolm Marx, arguably the best hooker in the world and inexplicably coming off the bench, was involved in both tries. Once again Springbok physicality was the signature written all over the second try. Marx emptied Henry Slade who was forlornly looking to try and create something and the ball ended up loose. South Africa got it to the sensational Cheslin Kolbe who pulled a step that is not easily explainable, in the English or any language, on Owen Farrell and he went on to score in what was heading to be a rout.

It is strange that when there is an overt expression of will, intent and aggression that an outrider of talent seems to eventually tag along. South Africa chose to play winning rugby. Cup rugby. They finished with some aplomb.

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