South Africa outclassed a determined England to emerge 15-6 winners at Stade de France and capture the title for the second time.
Frans Steyn goaled a long range effort, but Percy Montgomery’s flawless kicking form secured the William Webb Cup. There was no sign of a choke, and the Springboks took the win they always deserved.
A spectacle was never on the cards, but the weight of the occasion ensured spectators around the globe remained on the edge of their seats throughout. The first half was a tight affair with both teams feeling each other out, hoping for an opposition error.
Andy Sheridan was as good as the English press expected and made sure the Pommie scrum maintained the ascendancy at this set-piece. South Africa competed well at the tackle points early on, but it was clear the English were up for a physical battle. The men in white hassled around the fringes and Fourie du Preez had to be at his sharpest to get the pass away.
England dominated possession in the first quarter and elected to attack the Bok back three through a barrage of kicks. The UK media suggested Montgomery was the weak link at the back, but in this final he was nothing short of outstanding. He literally rose to the occasion time and again whenever one of Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Catt and Jason Robinson launched the bomb. He also saw South Africa to a 9-3 lead at the break, with three clinical penalties that bisected the uprights at every attempt.
Wilkinson managed to goal a superb penalty five metres from touch, but England had few real scoring opportunities. Mark Cueto crossed the line shortly after half-time when Mathew Tait cut the South African defence to pieces. However, the TMO ruled Cueto’s foot had brushed the touchline before grounding the ball and plaudits went to Danie Rossouw for effecting the desperate try-saving cover tackle.
Victor Matfield was a key man for the Boks, stealing a few off England’s thrown and securing his own line-out ball. But South Africa were reluctant to use the drive with the English forwards in a competitive mood and instead shifted it to the centres. Frans Steyn enjoyed a dream final, hammering away at the brittle defensive combo of Catt and Tait. In a game where the tactics were predominantly defensive, he was typically explosive.
The Bok defence must be commended for the way the stood up to the belligerent albeit unimaginative English assault. Bryan Habana left his mark on the final with some telling defensive hits. The Tait break in the first half was the lone moment where England looked threatening.
The controversial moment arrived on the hour when Andy Gomarsall popped a rolling kick into the Boks’ in-goal area. Montgomery had it covered and watched it dribble dead, but replacement Toby Flood saw fit to shove him into a television camera five metres beyond. Alain Rolland neglected to send him off and had South Africa lost there would have been an uproar about this potential turning point.
But the Boks did not miss their next opportunity with Steyn stepping up to slot a 48m penalty goal. What followed was characteristically South African as they repelled a determined English surge and effected a turnover.
The Poms continued to attack but were guilty of kicking away too much possession. The Boks were solid under the high ball and any probe into the corner came to nought. Matfield and Bakkies Botha in dominant form and there was no chance England were going to win a line-out against the throw.
The final whistle sounded and confirmed there would be no rags-to-riches ending for England, no drop-goal success for would-be goldenboy Wilkinson and no knighting for Brian Ashton. After a rollercoaster four-year tenure, Jake White, John Smit and everybody involved with the Bok team have their ultimate reward, and judging by the heart and skill they’ve shown at this tournament, they thoroughly deserve it.
South Africa - Penalties: Percy Montgomery (4), Frans Steyn.
England - Penalties: Jonny Wilkinson (2).
By Jon Cardinelli