The king is dead and a country mourns after New Zealand finally tasted defeat at a World Cup for the first time in over 4,300 days - but another two nations are daring to dream. England’s reward for producing arguably the most complete team performance in the modern era is a place in the final against South Africa, who held their nerve to grind down a dogged, if one dimensional, Welsh side.
The two semis could not have been more of a contrast: England and New Zealand showed relentless attacking intent in a helter-skelter opener whilst Wales and South Africa put ambition aside in the second as they slugged it out in an old fashioned arm-wrestle.
So dominant were Jones’s men against the mighty All Blacks that many are already tentatively etching their name onto the Webb Ellis, but the Springboks will pose an entirely different and more muscular threat in the final.
Here are the key areas where Saturday’s seismic clash will be decided:
Battle Of The Boot
The box-kick and up-and-under have long been in vogue as a means to disrupt defensive systems increasingly resembling a duck’s arse and SA have been putting boot to ball with frequency and good effect so far this tournament.
In their semi, the Boks chalked up an impressive 39 kicks, their most since the last time they appeared in the 2007 final, when they lumped the leather a whopping 48 times. These are not wayward hacks upfield either: they are surgically precise homing missiles, more often than not allowing a green-shirted player to leap and contest the pill in the air or forcing an opponent to infringe and turn the ball over.
Whilst the battle between Du Klerk and Youngs at scrum-half is one of many fascinating matchups across the park, neither 9 would say that kicking is the strongest part of their game. Both men, however, have improved in this area and are aware of its importance for getting up the pitch and carving opportunities to get the ball in hand in broken field.
South Africa’s bulky stand-off, Handre Pollard, will be licking his chops at the prospect of peppering Daly, May and Watson with his metronomic high balls, for England’s back three haven’t been overly tested this campaign under the swirling egg.
Whilst supporters of the Red Rose may not have any concerns over the catching skills of their flying wingers, Daly has looked uncertain in the past at fullback when faced with an intense bombardment, and Pollard and Du Klerk will be sure give him a stern examination in the most pressurized of circumstances.
South Africa will be only too aware of how dangerous England can be with ball in hand after last week. Pollard and co will be out to try to force England to play from deep by kicking long, chasing hard and pressuring their opponents into making errors insider their own half.
Whilst we’re on the kicking, watch out for veteran utility man Frans Steyn from the bench, owner of the biggest peg in world rugby. If the game’s tight in the last ten, England would do well to stay mindful that the man has absolutely got a 70-yard drop goal up his sleeve.
Although the weather is set fair for Saturday, there will be a lot of kicking – and whichever side gains the edge in the aerial battle can reap the territorial and possessional rewards that come with it.
Much like when trying to bounce Steven Smith’s of the Ashes, speed of ball is crucial in modern rugby, and England have been magnificent at generating it all tournament. In Curry, Underhill and Itoje they have three masters of the dark arts at ruck time.
Time and time again against New Zealand they blew black-shirted bodies away from the tackle area with brutal belligerence, clearing the way for Ben Youngs to fizz the ball out wide or send rampaging runners over the gain-line.
Without the ball England have been equally as effective at the breakdown, winning an average 9.6 turnovers per match at the tournament so far, the most of any side.
Again, this is due in no small part to Itoje, who has pilfered play more (10) times than any other man in Japan and twice as many as any South Africa player has managed (Damian de Allende is top with 5).
Against the All Blacks, the Sarries lock won three turnovers in a match for the third time at this year’s edition - no other player has managed that feat more than once. As a team, England won a match-defining 16 turnovers against New Zealand, the most by any side this campaign and England’s second most ever in their tournament history. Talk about dominance.
Their opponents South Africa never shy away from a physical ding-dong at the breakdown and will be hoping Vermeulen, Kolisi & co are channel their inner barnacles on Saturday just as they did during England’s summer tour last year.
Erasmus’s charges won that series 2-1, and their ability to get bodies over the ball and slow down England’s ruck times was a decisive factor. Either way, this game pitches the two most physical packs on the planet against each other – just ask Tomas Francis – the collisions will be staggering.
A powerful scrum and precise lineout are integral parts of any South African team’s DNA – they are the beating heart and life-giving lungs of the Springbok beast if you will, and this team’s run to the final has been built on those timeless traditions working in harmony with an immaculate kicking game.
Their lineout is seemingly unreadable, with its staggering success rate of 98% eclipsing all other sides at this Rugby World Cup, having finally bungled a throw against Wales to make it 62 from 63.
This set-piece stability has allowed them to launch their devastating rolling maul, particularly in the final third where their catch-and-drive game has yielded points aplenty.
They drove their generous Japanese hosts into the ground in the quarters and will be hoping to curb England’s suffocating rush defence by employing the same tactic here.
If you were to call out a potential weakness in this England’s outfit, the lineout would be it. It’s buckled under pressure in the recent past, and with South Africa’s gargantuan lineout operators in fantastic form, the accuracy of Jamie George’s darts and the coolness of Courtney Lawes’s calling are going to come under intense fire.
When it comes to scrum-time, South Africa are up there with the best and they have a seemingly endless supply of chunky props with scary surnames. As the game against Wales went deep, the Saffa pack turned the screw and put the men in red to the sword at the set-piece.
England’s titanic tight-five won’t wilt like the weary Welsh daffodils – plus they have a wealth of forward options on the bench – but there will be a huge amount draining work to complete here.
If the men in white can get parity in this crucial area, they will negate one of the opposition’s key weapons - and if their own set-piece functions like it did last week, they will have a platform from which to wreak havoc on the Springbok defence in the same way New Zealand were overrun.
Fairly Surprising Fact - South Africa have never scored a try in a RWC final.
This year may prove to be different. They are the tournament’s leading try scorers with 31 scores chalked up so far, boasting dangerous runners across the backline in the form of Kolbe, Le Roux and Mapimpi.
But they are facing a fortified white wall this weekend, one that shipped just three tries in 160 minutes of rugby against Australia and New Zealand and kept the All Blacks scoreless in the first half of a World Cup match for just the second time in their history.
England’s defence has been immense all tournament, with backrow bruiser Sam Underhill making the fifth most tackles (62) at this tournament, including the most sack tackles (9) of anyone in the competition, while Tom Curry and Manu Tuilagi have been omnipresent and rash-like in the defensive line. Should England tackle and toil with anything like the intensity they showed last week, it’s hard to see how South Africa can get past them more than once or twice.
Plenty, with several coming at World Cups. Most notably, Brian Ashton’s men fell just short in the 2007 final against a South Africa that had Eddie Jones on its coaching staff; eight years before that Sir Clive Woodward’s England had been dropkicked out by Janni De Beer at the quarter-final stage in 1999 before exacting revenge four years later in Australia.
Outside of World Cups, the last four tests between these two sides have seen both claim two victories each - the most recent encounter settled by a single point and a controversial TMO decision. On each occasion the side that handled the pressure moments and kept its discipline the best came out on top, and Saturday will be no different.
In a tournament that has seen a record number of red cards, the last thing either side need is a costly rush of blood to the head (just ask France fans). On this front, England have been pretty much impeccable, coming into the game as one of just three teams (along with Scotland and the hosts) not have a single player carded or retrospectively banned in Japan.
Let’s just hope Owen Farrell doesn't suddenly rediscover his penchant for stopping South Africa backs with a loosely aimed trapezius to the jaw…
England may be slight favourites going into this one, but South Africa are also a team on the rise that has tasted recent victory against New Zealand. Either way, Tokyo is set for an almighty battle on Saturday. In a delicious twist of fate, a country that formally enthroned its new Emperor last week will watch a new king of rugby crowned on its shores this weekend after 12 years of All Black rule. You don’t want to miss it.
Pint Prediction – England by 5
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