Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

England on track to derail South Africa juggernaut

Having something worthy or valuable to defend tends to focus the mind like nothing else.

Yesterday in Paris, the Metro train drivers when on strike for the day, causing havoc for England and South African supporters arriving in the French capital for tomorrow night's World Cup final.

The reason? The French government are attempting to bring in radical financial reforms which are threatening the train drivers' remarkably generous pensions, which currently pay out a full salary from the age of 50. No wonder they won't go down without a fight.

England have something worth fighting for too. As defending World Cup champions, the red rose side have endured a wretched four years.

Their nadir came just over four weeks ago, when in their defining pool A clash against South Africa, Brian Ashton's side crashed to a humiliating 36-0 defeat.

England's defence of their 2003 triumph was free-falling into the worst by any side in the history of the tournament.

The next morning, the players and management team held a heart-to-heart, bare-the-soul meeting. Some harsh words were said; answers demanded.

The seven players who had been World Cup winners in Sydney spoke of what it meant to them to defend their crown. What has passed was unacceptable. Everything had to change. It did.

England didn't re-invented themselves. There was no time nor the personnel to do so. But what they did was cut their cloth accordingly. And most importantly of all, dug deep into their mental reservoir.

When England's forwards destroyed Australia's scrum and Jonny Wilkinson kicked them into a semi-final, the shot of confidence transformed their spirit from one of desperation to one of steely determination.

That determination proved too strong for France to handle in the semi-final and now the defending champions are right where they wanted to be, in tomorrow night's final.

England are not the best side in the world, far from it. Their presence in the final has deprived the world of watching the gloriously multi-faceted talent of New Zealand, or the broken field prowess of the Wallabies, or the free spirit of a French side if only Bernard Laporte had allowed them to play.

Yet there is still one massive step to take if England are to make history and become the first nation to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. And while both Australia and France had flaws to expose, the first by their lack of a front five and the second in their tactical self-destruction, the Springboks offer no such obvious chinks in their armour.

Giant prop Andrew Sheridan will fancy his chances of disrupting Springbok tighthead CJ van der Linde to give England an edge again at scrum-time.

England will hope that can allow them to pressurise half-back pairing Fourie du Preez and Butch James and by once again playing for a territory game, hope that Wilkinson can work his kicking magic once again.

The problem for England is that South Africa are not only perfectly equipped to play a similar game, and have a world class full-back in Percy Montgomery (as opposed to France's novice in that position Damien Traille), but they also have more firepower across their backline to inflict serious damage on turnover ball.

In that respect, the Springboks also have the edge, with their back three of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Danie Rossouw providing a more physical and dynamic ball-winning threat than England's loose forward trio.

And in flying wing Bryan Habana, who has already scorched in for a tournament record-equalling eight touchdowns, they have a born match-winner.

The big question remains is whether England's now indefatigable spirit will be enough to halt the Springbok juggernaut. I can't see it, but this World Cup has already defied all logic.

The rugby won't be pretty, but we are in for one seismic finale to what has been the best World Cup of the lot.

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