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England vs South Africa: The single passage of play that decided the Rugby World Cup final

South Africa’s first-half defensive stand laid the foundations for a magnificent World Cup final victory

Rugby World Cup finals tend to be close affairs. This was a thorough out-classing, an out-muscling of the highest order. England were battered, bruised and beaten by one of the great defensive sides and forward packs of all time. South Africa emerged comfortable winners.

Forget the final score, the late scoring flurry – it was on the first-half defensive stand that this Rugby World Cup final victory was built.

For 26 phases South Africa held out, giving not an inch to England’s charges. Almost every one came under advantage – England had licence to play, a free shot to try something. Yet they could not find a way through. Time and again they forayed around the fringes, brows furrowed as they burrowed and battered on the door. It would not open.

For all the talk of South Africa’s defensive structure in phase play, this was about raw muscle. Along the line the forwards assembled themselves for each thumping carry. They hunted in pairs, relying on dominant two-tackles to repel England’s heavier hitters, and going low on those who could shimmy. Concentrating not on shearing the ball back their way, they got their hands to the ball repeatedly to slow it just enough to stall England’s ball and allow the forwards to reorganise for the next phase.

Rassie Erasmus has built a forward phalanx of destructive hitters, gentlemen who take great pleasure in thumping ball-carriers. They all stood up to be counted in the final. There was not a player in green and gold who had a poor game. Duane Vermeulen was phenomenal. Pieter-Steph du Toit totemic. Malcolm Marx, off the bench in the first half for the injured Bongi Mbonambi, outstanding. The locking quartet, including the sadly stricken Lood de Jager, indomitable. This is a mighty England eight, one with pace and strength and skills. But they could not match the physical might of the Springboks, at the scrum, in the maul, and in open play.

The hits came thick and fast. Billy Vunipola was dumped unceremoniously on his back, hoisted off his feet and thumped into the Yokohama turf. Brother Mako was similarly repelled. Billy again, munched by two more of those forwards. The loss of Kyle Sinckler inside two minutes meant England were shorn of another of their best carriers. He mightn’t have made a difference.

England could be accused of a lack of invention. With the knowledge that the advantage was coming, they seemed reluctant to try the little tip-on passes that have brought such joy over the last year or so, reluctant to play off ten or work one of the forwards into the game in a different way. There was no depth on their runners.

Eventually they went wide, but with Lukhanyo Am and Faf De Klerk lurking and pushed wide to cover the open spaces, it was forced. Anthony Watson was thrown the ball on the back foot, and South Africa pounced on him, trapping England behind the gain line and forcing them further back.

De Klerk curiously strayed offside. Somehow, this was just the second penalty Jerome Garces had awarded against South Africa in the movement. Through all the biffing and bashing on the door at the try line, the Springboks had kept their discipline.

England went to the left with advantage renewed. Thrice more they thumped on the door, and thrice more it was slammed in their face. South Africa continued to do just enough to slow the ball and stall momentum, and eventually the turnover was theirs, and the movement over. 26 phases survived. Owen Farrell knocked over the penalty, but it felt like points gained for South Africa.

What came after made this all the more apparent. Momentum had swung the South Africans’ way. England had failed to capitalise on their chance, and South Africa turned the screw. Twice before the half-time interval England transgressed; twice Handre Pollard held his nerve from the tee. No team had ever come back from a half-time deficit to win a Rugby World Cup. It was not going to change today.

It is fitting that such a defensive effort laid the platform for South Africa’s victory. Their defence has been the defining force of this World Cup, the one that slowed Japan, the one that ground out Wales, the one that felled the English. This is a set of forwards for the ages – England’s fine unit were thoroughly out-muscled. The blitz defence, led by Damian De Allende and Lukhanyo Am in midfield, completely shut down the threat of Manu Tuilagi, nary seen for much of the game, and seldom effective when the ball did come his way.

Yet it is those 26 phases that will be remembered. We do not know how the game may have evolved had England broken through that defensive wall, but it was the movement that decided this contest. South Africa are world champions.

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