International rugby’s master coach Eddie Jones is locked at two-a-piece against South African novice Rassie Erasmus. Appropriately, the decider, 17 months after their first ever Test meeting, is a World Cup final, writes Mark Keohane for IOL Sport.
Jones’ coaching pedigree demands respect. He took Australia to the 2003 World Cup final after stunning the All Blacks in the semi-final. In 2007 he was the most important piece of Jake White’s Springbok World Cup-winning puzzle and in 2015 Jones led Japan to the biggest upset in World Cup history, when they beat the Boks.
Now he has turned England from the jokers of world rugby into the aces.
Every platitude paid to Jones after England’s humiliation of the All Blacks in last Saturday’s semi-final is deserving and accurate. Equally, the compliments that have come thick and fast to Erasmus, who in 18 months has restored Bok pride and put the green-and-gold jersey back at the top table of world rugby. Jones has a healthy regard for Erasmus’ tactical ability and a genuine love for Bok rugby. There won’t be any underestimating Erasmus because of his limited international coaching experience. Equally, there will only be an acknowledgement that for England to win a second World Cup title, they will have to be even more physically opposing than was the case against the All Blacks.
The two coaches have pitted their skills against each other four times in the last year and half and while the statistics have the two deadlocked, it is Erasmus who would have claimed the moral victory when it comes to selection, team tactics and match-day game management.
Jones’ England stunned the Boks in the first of three Tests in 2017 when they led 24-3 after just 20 minutes at Ellis Park. The Boks recovered brilliantly to score five tries to four in winning 42-39. It was a fabulous Test.
Saturday’s World Cup final won’t match the Ellis Park festival for extravagance, but expect it to be more like the Boks’ 23-12 second Test win in Bloemfontein and England’s 12-11 triumph at Twickenham at the end of 2017. Those are the two relevant Test matches. England’s 25-10 win at Newlands was a combination of Erasmus playing a second-string line-up and wet-weather conditions that favoured the English.
The titanic Twickenham tussle was the barometer of these two teams, and while England kicked four penalties and the Springboks scored the only try, the Boks were denied the chance to kick a winning penalty in the last minute because of a controversial refereeing decision.
Jones and Erasmus know that there will be nothing sophisticated about Saturday’s final. It is going to be bruising, and the bigger the (legal) blows in the collisions, the better the chance of victory.
Jones and Erasmus are tactically among the best, but mostly they are intelligent selectors. They play a game suited to the strengths of their players and while it may not make for the prettiest of pictures, it makes for success.
Don’t dismiss Erasmus and his Boks on the evidence of England’s dismantling of the All Blacks. Jones knows that the Boks are a different proposition in style and physicality.