A week after winning a legendary match against France, South Africa put on its overalls this Saturday to get into the final and, in the process, become the bête noire of England, which it eliminated for the fourth time in the last 24 years. It was a more than honorable defeat (15-16) for a team that has gone from rock team to semi-finalist in six weeks. But the Springboks found the crack and will play next Saturday the match of the century against New Zealand: the two three-time champions in search of their fourth title.
Of the six matches between the two in the World Cups, England has only won one – in the 2003 group stage – to five of the Springboks, a 36-0 in the first round of 2007 and four eliminations. In the last final they were brought down from the cloud after eliminating the All Blacks in the semis – perhaps the best performance in their history – and in 2007 they dominated a rough duel with legend, Mark Cueto’s try that did not go up the scoreboard. The English flanker claims that he posed before touching the line and regrets the poor quality of the video 16 years ago.
Before taking charge of a burning England in December, Steve Borthwick had prepared one of rugby’s great crimes: the Brighton miracle, that is, Japan’s victory against the Springboks in the 2015 World Cup. The then forwards coach of the Japanese did not find the key at first against their native country and lost six of their first nine games, including a humiliating defeat against France in London and another against Fiji. You can’t get to a World Cup more under the radar.
But five victories in a row came and the only undefeated team in the tournament came out convinced against South Africa. Victory required drying up the forwards, winning the territory battle and scoring points. The master key was the high kicks, which threw the Springboks off center, failing before the blind confidence of Freddie Steward and Elliot Daly. Errors that cost meters, such as touch kicks; one of the most reliable teams in the world from the wing gave way one after another. The consequence was that it was played on a South African field, with no margin for error when the referee raised his arm for fighting more than necessary in search of the robbery, another fate in which they were inferior. Easy kicks for Owen Farrell and points for England.
South Africa was the caged jailer and could not find the key. When the sprinter Arendse could run, he lost the ball, the paradigm of an anxiety that translated into errors. Libbok paid for it, the fly-half under suspicion relieved by Pollard after half an hour. It was a game of precious points in which there were no shortage of test bullets. Hence the merit of the English in rejecting the first South African incursion into their five-metre line. And the price of the ball lost by Vunipola in the same area that was worth three green and gold points, like Farrell’s verbiage with the referee. The exceptions to a robotic first half in terms of discipline for the English (12-6).
Etzebeth, omnipresent to knock down the host, left in the 45th minute, something unprecedented in a South Africa that brought forward the changes. Constrained by her strength, short distances, South Africa aspired to open the floodgates, but her acceleration had no reward. When Arendse accelerated, he had no support to secure the ball. While their rival dozed, every minute was a victory for England. Especially if Farrell hit a drop kick – a quick dribble kick – that increased the distance to two scores.
But the Springboks continued to breathe and found the crack in the physique, the freshness of their substitute forwards, the wardrobe that tipped the balance in the epilogue. There were ten minutes left when they achieved the only try of the night with a charge from Snyman after his everlasting maul, that lethal platform. The kicks were no longer enough defense for an England that was listening to the alarm clock in the background. Until the last South African scrum caused the penalty blow of victory, the kick that Pollard scored from 49 meters. The champion survived the commonest day of hers.
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