TOKYO, 3 Nov - South Africa began Rugby World Cup 2019 with great confidence, having defeated New Zealand in 2018. They were the first foreign team to arrive in Japan for the tournament and overpowered the hosts 41-7 in a warm-up match.
Yet the All Blacks were still the team to beat at RWC 2019, and going down 23-13 in their pool stage opener dented the Springboks' confidence. There were doubts about whether they had enough firepower in their attacking game to complement a powerful pack of forwards, strong set piece and well-organised defence.
But they managed to build momentum as they moved towards the quarter-finals, beating Namibia, Italy and Canada with bonus-point victories.
They would not have expected to face the pacy Japan side in the first knockout match. It was a difficult test for the Boks, and especially the big South Africa forwards, but they imposed themselves physically and, with their defence presenting an impenetrable wall, they won comfortably.
They were favourites to beat Wales in the semi-finals, but it turned out to be tougher than expected, a late Handre Pollard penalty taking them over the line by three points.
That performance, and England's domineering win over New Zealand in the other semi, made them underdogs going into the tournament decider. But with Pollard scoring 22 points and the forwards again stepping up with a fearsome display, the Springboks clinched a third title.
Pollard and captain Siya Kolisi said before the match that the Boks had not shown all their skills before the final, and so it proved, as wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe scored two excellent tries to round off a superb campaign
Rassie Erasmus remained steadfast in his belief that "traditional" South Africa strengths, such as scrums, lineouts, mauling and defence, would conquer the world.
Outsiders urged the Springbok coach to add some strings to their attacking bow, especially as he possessed such lethal wingers as Mapimpi and Kolbe. However, scrum-half Faf de Klerk stuck doggedly to the box-kick ploy, and Mapimpi and Kolbe chased every one.
Pollard, meanwhile, slotted the kicks in the big games. It was almost as if Erasmus was holding back a few attacking moves for the final. So it proved, as the Springboks added some clever passes, played with good width and put in smart chip kicks behind the England defence, to supplement the power of the forwards.
The eye-catching decision to select six forwards among the substitutes also brought a new dimension to the South Africa pack, as a fresh tight five in the second half kept up the relentless pressure on the opposition.
It all worked out for Erasmus and he could not hide his smile after the final whistle on Saturday. He will now relinquish the head coach position and concentrate on his role as the director of rugby at the South African Rugby Union.
Player of the tournament
As the team’s game is based around forward dominance and scoring from penalties, Pollard’s goal-kicking was crucial. After a somewhat shaky effort in the pool stages, the fly-half showed why he is so highly regarded in the knockout stage.
He controlled proceedings expertly in the quarter-final, semi-final and final, with his late penalty against Wales particularly important. Against England he had a number of difficult penalties, but missed only two out of 10 shots at goal. The 25-year-old ended the tournament as the leading points scorer with 69, which included 16 penalties - also the most at the 2019 event.
Memorable moment off the pitch
South Africa seemed to be the second team for many Japan supporters, probably as a result of the Brave Blossoms’ stunning victory at RWC 2015. Many local fans even sang the South African national anthem and that support increased after the Boks beat Japan in the quarter-final.
Memorable moment on the pitch
When fly-half Pollard kicked the ball into the stands to secure a third Rugby World Cup for the Springboks.
While some players will be moving to overseas clubs, the Springboks will still be able to call on any player, wherever they are based. With only a few senior statesmen in the champion squad – Schalk Brits, Francois Louw, Frans Steyn, Tendai Mtawarira and Duane Vermeulen – the nucleus of the side will still be around for a good few years.
Quotes of the tournament
"Every time last year, since I started coaching and we lose a match, I changed my clothing. Last year, we lost quite a lot. This year, I only had to change it once. So, I’m hoping that I can wear this until the end of the final. So, this is my lucky shirt so far. It’s my church shirt." - Rassie Erasmus on his lucky white shirt, which now may need a change.
"Rassie has made a massive difference, not just to the Springbok team, but a lot of decisions that have influenced the whole nation." - Hooker Mbongeni Mbonambi.
Lost to New Zealand 23-13
Beat Namibia 57-3
Beat Italy 49-3
Beat Canada 66-7
Beat Japan 26-3
Beat Wales 19-16
Beat England 32-12
South Africa by the numbers
185 - Most team points in the pool stage.
1 - Yellow card, for Tendai Mtawarira, in the quarter-final against Japan.
98 - The percentage of lineouts won by the Springboks prior to the final, with just one lineout lost out of 63.
69 - The most points scored in the tournament by a player, Handre Pollard, including 22 in the final.