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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rugby World Cup Final: South Africa vs England preview

UPDATE: Read the post-match analysis of the Rugby World Cup Final HERE. Makes interesting reading compared to the match-preview...

In a little under six hours, South Africa and England will clash in Paris in the final of the Rugby World Cup 2007. We've left the tournament a little untouched so far, apart from our analysis of the shock exit of the pre-tournament favourites, New Zealand.

Once the All Blacks had been eliminated, the collective focus on the tournament turned to South Africa, who had looked effective and efficient in moving through to the semi-finals. There were a few scares, notably a close shave against Tonga (with a weakened side, admittedly), and a 10-minute period against Fiji where rugby was played as I wish it always was. But they came through, and results in other matches have seemingly gone South Africa's way, leaving 80 minutes between Jake White's team and the Webb Ellis trophy.

Rugby fever has gripped South Africa and, no doubt, England. Every second car here in Cape Town has an SA flag flying from its aerial, two out of three people are wearing some kind of national colours (green and gold) and complete strangers are wishing one another well as they pass in the streets! A friend of mine was commenting last night how great it is as a unifying force - she was right. But that is far from the minds of the 30 men who'll take the field tonight.

A shock final

If anyone had predicted this final - SA vs England - after the second week of the tournament, they'd have been laughed off as a rugby lunatic. South Africa destroyed England, 36-0, and it seemed that even Tonga would have a realistic chance of beating the defending champions. But somehow, England recovered, and have won their remaining matches, including one against Australia and a semi-final against France. Both have come courtesy huge performances from their forward pack and the surgically efficient boot of Jonny Wilkinson. That would seem to be South Africa's only concern today - control the forward play and deny Wilkinson the opportunity to win the game at the end.

For one thing that is for sure, England do not seem to possess the firepower to challenge South Africa. In fact, this England side are much like South Africa of 3 or 4 years ago - solid and strong, well-organized, but a distinct lack of penetration. That has now changed for SA rugby, and the pressure we have learned to create through defence has produced numerous tries in this tournament.

A focus on defence

Let's make no mistake - defence wins the World Cup. In South Africa's big victory over a tired looking Argentina in the semi-final, it was pressure and forced turnovers that produced four out of five tries - an intercept, a turnover, a forced error by the flyhalf and another intercept - 20 points in the bag. The intense pressure that is applied to the team who carry the ball is responsible for proabably 70% of the tries in the tournament. And in particular, South Africa have mastered this ability, with fast hands and even faster runners to capitalize on disorganized defence when that turnover comes.

Subdue and penetrate - winning rugby without the ball

Jake White and South Africa have perfected the art of winning the game without needing the ball. There was a time where the objective of rugby was to hold onto the ball, carry it through phases and work the opposition defence out. That is no longer the case. In fact, I would dare say that in the current game, the team that has the ball is the one that is at a disadvantage! Therefore, the objective of the game (as will be demonstrated tonight, I have no doubt) is to give the opposition the ball and then force the turnovers. For from turnovers, tries result, when the team is geared towards it.

In terms of science or statistics, one need only look at the numbers. When South Africa beat England 36-0, we had only 40% of the ball. Butch James, playing at flyhalf, passed the ball a grand total of zero times from first phase possession! Instead, it's kick for territory, give the opposition the ball (60% of it) and then tackle them, subdue them, and force an error. Then move it into space and score tries. And South Africa have done this magnificently.

Last night, Argentina did the same to France. Argentina had only 35% of the ball, and made 113 tackles compared to France's 50. So it's quite clear who was playing the game with the ball. But unfortunately for France, they made crucial mistakes - kicks that failed to find space or touch, turnovers through errors, forced turnovers, and Argentina scored three tries from rapid use of turnover ball. The final score - 34-10 to Argentina - little reward for France's possession.

It's a whole new debate was to whether this is good for the game of rugby. I can't see how it's a healthy situation when the team that has the ball has a disadvantage, but in World Cups, and in big international matches, that's certainly the trend. Perhaps the impending rule changes will rectify this situation. Most fans won't mind this situation - "Win even if it's ugly" - but when one thinks of sport as entertainment, then rugby has a problem. It will become an issue, I'm sure...

Tonight's match - South Africa to win by 11

But for tonight, rule changes are far from the minds of the players. South Africa have executed this strategy (call it subdue and penetrate) magnificently and are certainly the favourites for the title. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I would give England a 15-point head start and still back SA to win. But finals are great levellers and so anything can happen. But with South Africa's firepower, and ability to pressure the opposition through defence, one can't see England scoring more than a handful of penalties or drop-goal. South Africa, on the other hand are filled with potential match-winners and try-scorers.

It probably won't be the sort of game that brings tries, though. Perhaps an intercept, charged down kick or careless knock on will be pounced on and scored from. But it's South Africa who seem more likely to do that. In terms of negating the effect of Wilkinson, the key is to deny England first phase possession. That means holding your own in the scrums, and controlling the lineouts. The South African lineout, best in the world, should have the edge in this area, and so that affords SA's kickers with ample opportunity to do what teams seem to do best - kick the cover off the ball, gain territory and then pressure England and deny Wilkinson. Brendan Ventre recently wrote an excellent article for a local paper in which he bemoaned the state of the current game. He said then that the most important thing to do to win games is dominate set pieces, and that will probably win tonight's for SA.

So our prediction is a South Africa by about 10 points. In fact, in the name of sport, let's throw a score out there:

South Africa 20 - England 9
Wilkinson and the England squad will have other ideas. Let's hope it's a great ad for the game!



Anonymous said...

defence alone doesnt win world cups... it just helps to stop the other team winning...

if england had displayed more invention and creativity in the back line, they could have put more points on the board... and that would have won them the world cup...

and there is no point rueing on cueto's dissallowed try, as this was the only move i can recall where england looked threatening with ball in hand...