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How astute Erasmus and Boks got it spot on for final showdown

Winning ways: South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe scores his
side’s second try in the final
Winning ways: South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe scores his side’s second try in the final
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For all the talk of South Africa's limited game plan, they showed more ambition in the World Cup final's early stages than in their last 120 minutes combined.

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The sight of the usually one-dimensional Eben Etzebeth releasing an out-the-backdoor offload was certainly evidence of a more expansive game plan, even if the success was still one built upon forward dominance.

The late tries, through wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, put a deserved gloss on the 32-12 scoreline, and were their first final scores in three attempts, but moreover were reward for the greater ambition on show.

For all of Rassie Erasmus' talk during the week that there was simply no need or time to change a winning formula, this was not just a better executing version of the side that beat Wales and Japan. They were all the better for it.

Erasmus, of course, has to take a huge amount of praise for this memorable triumph. When he left Munster almost two years ago to the day for a job in his homeland, few would have given him a prayer of being the man with his hands on the Webb Ellis here in Yokohama.

Off the back of a 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks and a reverse to Italy, it was a formidable proposition, and to go from the end of Allister Coetzee's reign to World Cup winners in just 26 Tests really is a remarkable feat.

It was his captain Siya Kolisi - a player he gave a first pro contract to when at the Stormers 10 years ago - who offered an insight into his pivotal role, saying that it was the coach who restored the importance of the jersey to a side who had been too pre-occupied with playing for fame or relative fortune.

Erasmus has unified a once disparate collective. The sight of his bench players - the so-called 'Bomb Squad' - celebrating and taking pictures as a unit on the pitch afterwards was a real sign of the buy-in he has achieved not just from his first-teamers but the whole panel.

Kyle Sinckler has likely been this tournament's best tighthead prop, one of a number of England players who could have reasonably expected to be on the World Rugby Player of the Year shortlist. The Harlequins man would last less than three minutes of the final, however, after a collision with Maro Itoje's elbow.

He was sorely missed on a day when England's scrum crumpled under Boks pressure. Seventy-seven minutes at the coalface would be an unenviable task for anyone but Dan Cole struggled mightily on the day.

Tendai Mtawarira had him on toast to the tune of three first-half scrum penalties. With help from his tighthead Frans Malherbe, the 34-year-old veteran, who began this tournament behind Steven Kitshoff, dominated the set-piece. A decade on from that Lions series in 2009, and 11 years into his Test career, 'The Beast' produced one of the games of his life in what may well be his last ever Test.

There was no let up when Kitshoff and Vincent Koch were called upon either, the replacements earning two penalties of their own.

Just as New Zealand had found their error count sky-rocketing in the semi-finals, now it was England's turn to falter under the pressure of a dominant defensive display by the opposition. Former Munster defence coach Jacques Nienaber is among the favourites to succeed Erasmus after this tournament and he did his cause no harm, his system frustrating Eddie Jones' men and forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes.

A restart was spilled, South Africa were allowed to reclaim their box-kicks, passes were flung into touch and punts put out on the full. It was a real litany of errors on the big stage for a side who came in as relatively strong favourites. Jones was not, though, in the mood to blame their late-arriving bus.

Duane Vermeulen, having left a lasting impression on Billy Vunipola during England's summer tour to South Africa in 2018, was name-checked by the Saracens man during the week as someone that had to be kept in check come the final but instead he had a hugely impactful outing.

Leading his side in carries and metres made, it was at the breakdown where the powerful No.8 was most noticeable. A thorn in side of an English unit who have dominated the area throughout their time in Japan, he was a menace in slowing their ball and blunting their attack.

At 33-years-old, and having won only four caps during the two-year tenure of Coetzee, there will certainly have been times when he thought an occasion such as this would never arrive for him. Instead, he was named man of the match.

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