South Africa: world champions!

21 October 2007

It wasn’t pretty – finals seldom are – but, after a committed and controlled team effort, South Africa’s Springboks defeated England 15-6 at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night to win the Rugby World Cup final, and lay claim to the William Webb Ellis Trophy for the second time.

Wearing a Springbok tracksuit top, President Thabo Mbeki joined Bok captain John Smit in hoisting the trophy, while back in South Africa the country enthusiastically celebrated a popular victory with a massive outpouring of joy and happiness.

Send the Springboks a message of support It was the culmination of a four-year journey under Jake White, who took over as coach after a disastrous Springbok campaign at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, which was rocked by accusations of racism and the infamous “Kamp Staaldraad” before the players had even reached Australia.

‘He’s no liar’
In his first speech to the players back in 2004, he told them they were going to win the World Cup in 2007. Reflecting back on that speech on Saturday evening, SA skipper John Smit said: “he’s no liar”.

To a man, listening to the players trying to put into words their feelings after reaching the pinnacle of rugby success in winning the World Cup, they all mentioned how it had been four years of hard work. It was clear that each and every member of the squad had bought into the coach’s mindset and it showed throughout the tournament.

Where other teams were asked on-field questions during their campaigns and lost their composure as they failed to find an answer, the Springboks almost always seemed to be in control of their emotions and playing to a well-constructed plan.

A defining moment
On one of those occasions when a tough question was asked – against Fiji in the quarterfinals – the Fijians came oh so close to taking the lead when lock Ifereimi Rawaqa crossed the South African tryline for what looked to be a certain try. JP Pietersen, however, somehow managed to tackle and twist the big man over the sideline, without him having grounded the ball.

It is those kind of moments that define a team’s successes or failures, and for South Africa it was the lasting memories of successes that the side was left with.

For other teams, such as New Zealand, France, and Australia, when matters did not go according to the book, they couldn’t find a way to change things, and thus it was that the playoffs saw a number of upsets, including England disposing of Australia and France.

In the final, too, there would be another critical moment when South Africa did just enough to prevent England getting back into the game, and taking over the momentum.

Unsing heroes
The performances of some of the players captured the spotlight during the tournament, but there were a good number of unsung heroes too. While players such as Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and Victor Matfield confirmed their status as among the best, if not the best, players at their positions, other, such as Butch James, even John Smit, rebuffed any suggestions that they might be not be up to scratch with solid contributions.

On that point of standout players, it would be fair and accurate to say that South Africa won the World Cup because they performed as one, a team effort, and not because of a few outstandings performers.

In a tournament that saw so many of the favourites shocked, the valuable and inspirational leadership of John Smit was clear for all to see.

Together with the senior players in the most experienced South African team of all time, he set an example for the exciting young talent in the side to follow and emulate, and it resulted in a cohesive unit that played at a highly-focused and efficient level throughout the tournament.

Credit Jake White
Coach Jake White, who so nearly lost his post at the end of 2006, when he was summoned back home during South Africa’s end of season European tour, deserves a lot of credit for identifying what the Springboks needed to win and then sticking to his guns.

When he took over, he wanted a dominant loosehead prop and persuaded Os du Randt to end his retirement from the international game. He identified fullback as a potential weakness and approached Percy Montgomery, then playing his rugby in Wales, to return to the Springbok team. He also appointed John Smit captain of the team.

Along the way to the final in Paris, over the course of four years, all three players and White faced criticism.

Criticism
Du Randt, it was said, was too old and wasn’t up to the punishing nature of the game today. Montgomery had for many years had his detractors who called him too soft, criticised his defence, and ridiculed his kicking, and Smit, some contended, wasn’t the best hooker in South African rugby, maybe not even in the top two.

Yet, on Saturday evening at the Stade de France, Du Randt, in the final match of his illustrious career, played the entire game, performing strongly in the scrums and around the field, while Montgomery converted all four penalty attempts he had on goal and fielded a huge number of up-and-unders with distinction. Smit was spot-on with his lineout throwing as South Africa dominated that aspect of the contest. He scrummed well, and he led from the front.

Du Randt, who played the majority of his tests after White coaxed him back to the international game, now retires from rugby as one of only four men to win two World Cup titles, and he will no doubt be remembered as one of the all time greats with the passing of the years.

Nurturing young talent
White also excelled in bringing young talent into the Springbok ranks, players such as Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, and Francois Steyn.

Habana, arguably the most talked about player at the tournament, finished the World Cup with eight tries, equalling the record held by Jonah Lomu, while Pietersen grew in stature throughout the duration of the event. Steyn, after replacing the injured Jean de Villiers at inside centre, provided spark and flare outside of James at flyhalf.

Some of the Boks’ success could also be attributed to the work of consultant Eddie Jones. The former Wallabies’ coach was well-received by the players and his impact lauded; again, it was Jake White that had the foresight to bring Jones into the South African camp.

So, congratulations must go to White in what is undoubtedly the hottest seat in South African coaching.

The effect of victory
South Africans remember the incredible effect of the Springboks first World Cup victory in 1995, which brought together black and white in a magical manner just one year after the country had become a democracy. One wonders what effect the success of the Bok class of 2007 will be.

One effect was already evident before the final as shops around South Africa sold out of Springbok jerseys, in a huge outpouring of support for the national team.

Coach White, always focused on the game, says the victory is a massive opportunity for South African rugby to build on the achievement of his side and become the first nation to win the Webb Ellis Trophy back-to-back.

He says England, after winning the World Cup in 2003, did not do justice to their status of world champions, and he hopes the Springboks will learn from the English experience and make sure South Africa be seen as world champions around the rugby world.

Celebrating with the nation
One effect of the World Cup triumph is that there is still plenty of celebrating to take place and President Mbeki has urged the entire country to be a part of it.

The Springboks will return to South Africa on Monday, touching down in Johannesburg very early on Tuesday morning, at 07:00. Never mind the early hour, they are sure to be greeted by a massive and adoring throng of fans.

Then, on Friday, 26 October, the world champions will be hosted by President Mbeki in Pretoria before going on an open bus tour that will take them through the city, as well as Johannesburg and Soweto.

Visits to Bloemfontein, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and Cape Town will follow, with the parade through the Mother City concluding matters on 29 October.

On the field
At the Stade de France, the final was a hugely physical affair, dominated by two powerful packs of forwards intent on overpowering their opposition. In the lead-up to the game, England had been expected to shade the scrums behind loosehead prop Andrew Sheridan, while South Africa was expected to put pressure on the English in the lineouts.

As it turned out, the scrums proved to be evenly contested, but in the lineouts the Springboks reigned supreme, winning all of their throw-ins while stealing seven of England’s throw-ins. It made a crucial difference.

England lost their first two lineouts and that must have immediately put doubts into the minds of Phil Vickery’s side. Springbok supporters, on the other hand, must have been worried when England drove them back at the first scrum, but that would prove to be the defending champions’ best effort at scrum time the entire evening.

The English showed their hand early on, pumping high-up-and-unders onto the Springboks and giving chase in the hope of putting the South Africans under pressure, but throughout the contest they were to find very little return on that tactic. It was their most common form of attack.

A chance to score
With seven minutes played, the Boks had an opportunity to take the lead when Matthew Tait, probably England’s best player on the night, slipped on the counter-attack and was swamped by South African forwards. He failed to release the ball while on the ground and Percy Montgomery was given an easy shot at goal.

The fullback struck his kick cleanly down the middle of the uprights to put the Springboks into a 3-0 lead.

England showed some enterprise when their backs had a run for the first time after 11 minutes, but South Africa’s defence ably marshaled the opposition to the sideline where Bryan Habana made a telling tackle on his opposite number Paul Sackey. Habana, though, then went over the ball and off his feet and England were awarded a penalty.

England level
From near the touchline, Jonny Wilkinson struck his attempt beautifully to steer it between the posts and level the scores at 3-3.

Three minutes later, Lewis Moody needlessly stuck out a foot as Butch James chased a kick ahead. It was a slight, but deliberate movement and referee Alain Rolland picked it up. Once more Montgomery had a chance to put more points on the board.

Again, his kick never looked like missing and the Springboks moved into a 6-3 lead.

Shortly afterwards, Wilkinson tried to level matters for his team with a dropped goal, but his attempt was wide.

Slightly wide
With 22 minutes played, the Boks had an opportunity to increase their advantage when England were penalised for going over the top at a ruck. The long-range attempt was handed to Francois Steyn, but his kick, although it easily had the legs, was slightly wide of the mark.

A clever chip and re-gather by James on the counter-attack nearly prised open the English defence, but Jason Robinson, in his last test, managed to knock the flyhalf off balance. After a few rucks, South Africa infringed and the resulting penalty allowed England to move out of their territory.

As the half headed towards its conclusion, the Springboks turned up the heat on the English, pinning the defending champs deep inside their 22-metre area. Desperate English defence then held out a number of Bok bashes at the line before referee Rolland ruled SA had knocked on.

Bigger lead
Then, with time almost up, Danie Rossouw picked up off the back of a scrum and was stopped fractionally short of the tryline. England, though, conceded a penalty and Montgomery made them pay once more, landing the kick to increase South Africa’s lead to 9-3.

The Springboks took that advantage into the break. In every previous World Cup final, it was the team that led at halftime that went on to lift the title.

England captain Phil Vickery had required treatment on a few occasions in the opening stanza and didn’t return to the field for the second half, his place being taken by Matt Stevens, who had played rugby for South Africa at age group level.

Three minutes into the second half, South Africa’s only clear defensive gaffe of the game presented England with a chance to score. Tait, near halfway, ducked under the tackles of Steyn and Jaque Fourie in the midfield and raced down the field. He easily evaded Montgomery, but was cut down just short of the tryline by Victor Matfield.

TMO decision
England moved the ball to the left to Mark Cueto and he dived over the line to dot down, just as Rossouw made a desperate tackle to prevent the five-pointer. The English and their fans thought they had scored, but referee Rolland asked the television match official Stuart Dickinson to take a look at it.

After viewing the incident from a number of angles and taking a good few minutes to deliberate on it, Dickinson decided that Cueto had touched the sideline with his boot before grounding the ball and the try was disallowed. South Africa had, however, strayed offsides and England was instead awarded a penalty.

Wilkinson succeeded with his kick, reducing the points’ difference to three, with the Springboks 9-6 in front.

Three minutes later, England lost their fullback Jason Robinson with a shoulder injury.

Montgomery on song
With half-an-hour to play, South Africa moved further into the lead when Montgomery landed a fourth penalty goal after Martin Corry, captaining England in place of Vickery, was penalised for hands in at a ruck. 12-6.

The English, still trying to play the game deep in South Africa’s half by employing the boot, tried a little variety on attack by bringing their backline into the game, but they seemed to lack confidence and were constantly shepherded to the sidelines or driven back in the tackle by SA’s ferocious defenders.

There was a moment of concern for South Africa when Toby Flood, on for Mike Catt, chased a ball deep into the South African try area and gave Montgomery a hard shove which sent him careering into a television camera. The fullback didn’t have the ball at the time, but the referee chose not to penalise England.

Long penalty kick
Two minutes later, after a kick deep into England’s half of the field, needless obstruction was penalised by the ref and Steyn was handed a second long kick at goal.

This time his effort was straight and true, lifting the Boks more than a converted try clear at 15-6.

England continued trying to pin Smit and company in their 22-metre area, but their kicks were returned with interest, and time after time the Springboks managed to turn the ball over, either in the rucks or the lineouts, after dealing efficiently with England’s robust but largely unimaginative attacking forays.

With eight minutes to go, Wilkinson tried a drop from some distance with his less-favoured right foot, but it was a weak effort and never threatened to go over; it was, however, indicative of the desperation England must have been feeling as they struggled to find a way to score against a committed wall of green.

No way through
And so it went inside the last 10 minutes. England driving the ball up, turning it over, and South Africa driving them back down the field. Not once, not twice, but three times as the minutes ticked by.

Finally, with only seconds remaining on the clock, the Springboks kept the ball close to the pack to work the clock. Driving for only centimetres at a time, before going to ground and protecting the ball, South Africa maintained possession.

Smit checked with the referee whether or not the 80-minute mark had been reached. It had. With that, Du Preez seized the ball and booted it over the sideline. The final whistle sounded and the celebrations began.

Two-time winners
The Springboks had joined Australia as the only two-time winners of the Rugby World Cup.

Montgomery, who didn’t miss a kick in the semi-finals and final, finished the tournament as the highest points’ scorer, while Habana ended on top of the try-scoring table.

The SA team that played the final, with 668 caps to their credit, was the most experienced Bok team ever to take the field and that experience, built up since coach White had taken charge, had carried South Africa to the title of world champions.

‘It’s a wonderful feeling’
“It’s a wonderful feeling, finishing here with the World Cup. It has been a long four years. There have been real highs and real lows and today we had a lot of support from the 45 million South Africans,” said John Smit.

Echoing his skipper, man of the match Victor Matfield said: “This is awesome. We worked for four years for this. We knew we were going to have to take it to them.

“The emotions are greater than I ever thought. I can’t wait to get back home. I can’t wait to see all the South Africans.”

Prop Os du Randt, a winner of the World Cup as a 22-year-old, declared: “I don’t remember the first one, it’s too long ago, but I’m still enjoying this one. It’s definitely good to win.”

“What do you say when you’ve won a World Cup? It’s an unbelievable experience,” said coach Jake White.