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Boks can leap up to next level and shine in decider

 

A step above: Lood de Jager of South Africa in action during the semi-final against Wales
A step above: Lood de Jager of South Africa in action during the semi-final against Wales
Chelsin Kolbe
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For those that put any faith in the old maxim that semi-finals often serve up more entertaining fare than the showpiece that is to follow, Sunday's last-four clash between the Springboks and Wales would leave you wondering whether it was worth setting the alarm this weekend.

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South Africa advanced to face England in the World Cup final on Saturday (9am UK time) off the back of one of the most one-dimensional last-four performances in the tournament's short history.

While the likes of England v Scotland in 1991 were hardly classics, the sight of neutrals voting with their feet and heading for the exits from half-time onwards was hard to ignore. The stat du jour - more than one kick from hand per minute - told it's own tale.

But it is not for nothing that South Africa came to Japan regarded as one of the three best teams in the world, their performances in the Rugby Championship showing there is a more enthralling brand in their arsenal, if only they would break it out more often.

While their title-sealing victory over Argentina in August was certainly attritional, and indeed cost them the services of Ulster's Marcell Coetzee who injured an ankle, it was the 16-16 draw against the All Blacks one round prior that drew deserved plaudits for its ambition.

Then, in a similar fashion to the game in Yokohama that opened their campaign, their defence was high-risk, high reward, playing narrow and with linespeed designed to force their vaunted opposition into turnovers. The difference in tempo from that to what we saw last weekend is startling to review.

"Honestly, I know we're all feeling the same way, it was a painful watch, wasn't it?" reflected All Black Justin Marshall who, in his role as a commentator, has witnessed many of the Boks' better days first hand.

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"I don't know why they don't play the way they do when they play New Zealand.

"When they play New Zealand they play completely different, the only team they play differently against and yet they get success in it.

"They drew against the All Blacks, they beat them in the last calendar year and pushed them really hard in cracking games where they've not played like they did against Wales.

"It's like, 'why is your mindset reversed back against the rest of the teams in the world?'

"Simple, they feel they can play that way and beat the rest of the world. They feel like they can't play that way and beat the All Blacks. But, hey, we're (New Zealand) not in the final. South Africa will say 'we are'."

Indeed, that was essentially the point made by Rassie Erasmus in Tokyo yesterday.

The former Munster boss took over at the start of 2018 with the side at a low ebb after the reign of Allister Coetzee - remember, it's not so long ago that a presumed quarter-final was viewed as a favourable draw for Ireland - and has had to reinvent and reinvigorate his squad in double-quick time. His undoubted coaching nous, allied to a return for a host of European-based players, has helped make huge strides from the days of being dismantled 38-3 in Dublin less than two years ago, but their World Cup perhaps shows it takes a little longer to reinvent the wheel.

"If one understands where we have come from - we have been number six, seven and eight in the world - we have got certain challenges, and one of them was to redeem ourselves and become a power again in world rugby," said Erasmus.

"By doing that, you have to have some building blocks in place, and we have followed a certain route and play according to the stats and the way the game is being refereed currently and what gives you short-term good results on the scoreboard.

"We certainly accept that there are some things in our game that we have to improve, and we take it on the chin and we will keep on improving that. But we have put ourselves in a position to maybe win the World Cup and we are in the final.

"Yes, we accept the criticism, but we are also happy we are in a position to compete in a World Cup final, which is ultimately where we want to be."

While he was never likely to say anything else - no coach at this level is going to be baited into revealing the gameplan four days out - Erasmus warned we can expect more of the same back in Yokohama come Saturday.

"We have 160 minutes of training, 60 minutes of team training and 40 or 60 minutes of split training when we split into forwards and backs, so you have two days of training," he added. "Not a lot will change."

One alteration to lift the heart-rate should be the return of wing Cheslin Kolbe. One of the most electrifying players in world rugby is fit again after the ankle injury that prevented him taking part in the quarter-final.

"I've played against him in Europe a couple of times, he's a good player with very good feet," said England full-back Elliot Daly of the Toulouse man.

"He's one of their x-factor players. I don't think it'll change their structure too much, they'll probably just try and get him the ball as much as possible."

There'll be plenty of neutrals certainly hoping so.

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