Crash, tackle and boom

Keo, at the Stade de France, on the heroics of the Boks.

There were so many monumental and defining moments in this brutal final, each significant at the time, but collectively all definitive in determining South Africa’s World Cup win.

Victor Matfield was colossal, dominant in the lineout, but even more commanding in his general defence. Never again should there be criticism that Matfield is the flashy boy of a grinding tight five unit. Matfield can scrap with the toughest bulldogs as England growled, barked and growled some more. But the bite they needed was never quite there as their attack had no answer to South Africa’s defence.

Pre-match predictions were of the South African attack against the England defence, but the match unfolded the other way with England getting the greater field position and ball and South Africa required to defend to win this World Cup.

The kick-off is hugely influential in setting the tone for the opening stanza and with England having won the toss and decided to kick first, South Africa were always going to be under pressure initially and it took the Boks an hour to eventually get ahead by two scores.

It is the two-score advantage that killed England because it forced them to play catch-up and they simply don’t have the polish or class among their backs to do this. As they chased the game they hit brick wall after brick wall, with Jonny Wilkinson so desperate that on 71 minutes, with his team trailing by nine points, all he could conjure up was a week drop goal attempt. That was when the Boks knew they’d broken the spirit of a side that had survived on an inner belief that they would rewrite history.

They didn’t and still no team has won the World Cup having lost a Pool match. No team has won it when trailing at half-time in a final. The Boks, unbeaten, and leading 9-3 at the break, maintained the historical status quo.

It was a victory inspired by brutal defence, discipline unmatched among this team and a determination that was never going to lose this final.

England, it was said, had the experience to play ‘Finals Rugby’. They had Wilkinson and they had the memory of 2003 and the 100th minute win in Sydney. South Africa, though, had warriors in every position, who turned defence into an attacking art as they ripped into England in the first 20 minutes and were still smashing anything in a white jersey in the 79th minute.

In that opening 20 minutes England had 12 lineout throws to South Africa’s two and they had all the territorial advantage, but they could make no impact on a South African defence that held its line and kept its shape in a first quarter. England showed their hand in that time, but it was not strong enough and South Africa were comfortable in winning this through an arm-wrestle.

The Boks played the more constructive ‘Finals rugby’ and they showed the benefit of being together for four years. They never panicked and a more inexperienced team could easily have lost this final in that opening 20 minutes.

England were aggressive and equally determined and the Boks were guilty of forcing passes close to the fringes of the break down. But they settled, with John Smit as important to the win as Matfield.

Percy Montgomery, fabulous under the high ball and potent with his line and goalkicking, was never unnerved in the last line of defence and England, outside of the up and under, offered no other means of attack.

Matthew Tait broke the line in the 42nd minute, the bounce of the ball wrong-footing Frans Steyn, and England should have scored from the advantage. They didn’t, with the television referee ruling no try. That, as far as attack, was England’s moment. They had to score a try soon after the restart and they were denied by the width of a shoelace.

The Boks, so disciplined, fought their way back to halfway through the boot of halfbacks Fourie du Preez and Butch James and that’s where they stayed for most of the match.

But the class of this team is that they scored points whenever they got within 30 metres of England and crucially they scored just before halftime.

Coach Jake White spoke of defence winning World Cups, while All Blacks coach Graham Henry preached about the romance of attack. White on Saturday night won his argument.

Defence, however, can only be effective if there is desire. Every Bok had that desire. They tackled and toiled. They won ugly, but never has such ugliness looked so beautiful.

England supporters in the last two weekends will know what I am talking about.