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England and South Africa show Ireland how to turn heartbreak into success

Crucial: South Africa celebrate Damian de Allende’s try against Wales in semi-final
Crucial: South Africa celebrate Damian de Allende’s try against Wales in semi-final
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Long since back to porridge at home, two defeats from five games and a team that looks in desperate need of fresh ideas will have left fans of Irish rugby believing their side could hardly be further from the World Cup final happening half a world away.

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As both England and South Africa can attest, though, peaks are scaled starting from the ground up.

The two sides that will compete in Yokohama for the Webb Ellis trophy tomorrow (9am UK time) endured their lowest points in the history of the tournament just four years ago but have both rebuilt and regenerated to now sit just 80 minutes from history.

While South Africa reached the semi-finals, where they were narrowly beaten by a historically dominant All Blacks side in Twickenham, they returned home with the pool loss to Japan in Brighton their competition's enduring performance, one that forced then coach Heyneke Meyer to apologise to the country as a whole.

England, meanwhile, were the poorest ever performing hosts, losing to both Wales and Australia and exiting at the group stages, their fate sealed before they'd even played their final pool game, even if the recriminations would rumble on and on.

While four years is of course a lengthy stint, certainly in a sport like pro rugby, to have two turnarounds of such scale leading so quickly to a spot in the global showpiece remains quite remarkable.

"Every day we try to get better," said England's head coach Eddie Jones of the approach he has tried to instill since taking over from Stuart Lancaster following the 2015 disaster. "Every week we try to get better and each game is an opportunity for us to get better, so we just have to continue down that track.

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"The concern is, can we get better tomorrow and then can we play better than the previous week? That simple approach for us has worked. It frees us up, allows us to play with a discipline but also a freedom to use the skills in the team, so that's why we feel like we are ready to go."

Having made no secret of the fact that he wanted his tenure to be judged on how the side performed at this World Cup, adding that he had been preparing for last week's semi-final with New Zealand for the past two-and-a-half years, Jones (below) does not claim it has been a linear process. While a Grand Slam in his first year seemed like a signpost, he cites a lost series in South Africa last summer and the blown lead against Scotland in the Six Nations earlier this year as important lessons in building a World Cup contender.

"I don't think anything is smooth," he pondered. "You look at the journey of any team to the World Cup, it's difficult. There's always ups and downs. You get injuries, illness, players lose form, you get players getting old that you didn't expect to get old and you are continually trying to work out how you're going to get the team better.

"In any team's development you have wins that are important and losses that are important.

"When I think about this team, one of the most important was the Grand Slam game against France in 2016. We started the game probably within ourselves and it took us until the second half to find ourselves.

"(In South Africa in 2018), we had to regenerate the team. We had to look at the success of the team and how we were going to regenerate it again. That was the key to it. The captains, Dylan (Hartley) was unavailable so we brought in a new captain, Owen Farrell, and started a new generation.

"(Then) the Scotland game in the Six Nations. We learned a lot about ourselves that's enabled us to look at ourselves a little more deeply and work out where we want to go as a team.

"Sometimes the most difficult moments are your best moments."

Rassie Erasmus has had even less time to turn around the panel he leads into tomorrow's date with destiny.

Meyer left as planned after 2015, but his successor Allister Coetzee endured a terrible time in charge. He saw out just two seasons of his four-year deal, winning only 44% of his Tests. A defeat to Italy in Florence and a 57-0 humiliation at the hands of New Zealand were particular low points, while many in Ireland will remember the November day when Joe Schmidt's men dished out a 38-3 hammering against a side that looked a shadow of themselves.

Erasmus admits that it took "rock bottom" for the Springboks to begin their bounce back.

"Hitting rock-bottom made us realise that we had to fix it," said the former Munster coach. "With all of that available to us, there is no reason we can't be a force in world rugby. We started this whole journey 18 months ago and we said the main thing is how we play rugby, and eventually spin-offs of that, when we win, people will start supporting us again and talking about us, help us with team selections and criticise, and that's what we want.

"Then you know South Africans are supporting you again, when they start engaging again. We knew that it would be a process and we knew that the scoreboard at the end of the day would count.

"We don't think that we are now suddenly a force back in world rugby. We've reached a World Cup final, yes, that's great, and we will try our utmost best to win it, and we really think we are in with a good chance of giving England a real go and trying to win it on Saturday.

"But the big challenge is to be consistent now. It's a nice springboard for us to take it forward now with the players we have, and all the good coaches we have, the facilities and good structures, we should stay in the top three in world rugby. Or at least consistently compete for that. But it wouldn't always go our way. We would lose along the road and we would have to take some risks. But expectations will grow as we get a little bit better."

One of these sides is just a day away from being world champions - it's not so long ago that few would have expected that.

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