It’s not the despair, I can live with the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand
I can’t remember who wrote those words, but every sports fan will know how right they are. Tonight, somewhat against expectations, England attempt to retain the Rugby World Cup against South Africa. It wasn’t meant to be like this. 36 days ago I poured scorn and derision at my TV as the Boks embarrassed England 36-0 in the group stage. I wasn’t down about it because I expected a heavy defeat. But it was so bad, so appalling a performance by England, I was willing the Boks to score even more points, to play without mercy. We had no chance in this tournament and those who had wasted the four years since England beat Australia in Sydney (gratuitous reason for photo) had to know exactly how low they’ve led us.
It was after that game that the players decided to figure things out for themselves, to retreat to what they’re good at and not let ambition delude them into thinking they’re something they’re not. Four years of trying to run the ball was ditched in favour of forward power. We improved slowly and made it to the QF against Australia. Now if the team had read the script they could have been brave, given it all they have and gone out of the tournament against one of the best teams in the world. But no, they went and demolished the Wallabies up front, stifled their backs and sent the Aussies on a long journey home.
France up next in the SF, and no doubt the game will go according to plan this time. Again, no. England kept it tight, let the forwards do their thing and Jonny kicked us into the Final. I could have spent the last couple of weeks looking forward to a final between the Boks and either France or Australia. But no, somehow this severely limited England team fought and scrapped their way past their opponents, and now England stand just 80 minutes away from becoming the first team to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. Our drubbing at the hands of the Boks is meaningless. It’s a different team with a different mentality. They know what they can do and, as important, know what they can’t.
The Boks have no weaknesses from 1 to 15. From the first minute of the tournament they’ve balanced, sharp and confident. They’re clearly very well prepared and believe they’ll take the Final. But these strengths could be a weakness. Their three star backs of du Preez at scrum half, Butch James at stand off and Bryan Habana on the wing haven’t been tested, not had to play under pressure, going backwards. The only time their scrum was tested was against England and that was the one aspect of the group stage where they were second best. The team hasn’t had to play at all under real pressure, whereas England have played knockout rugby where one mistake can see you going home, for five consecutive games.
So England can do it, but they can’t allow the Boks to get 10 points ahead – we aren’t made for catch-up rugby. If our forward power can retain the ball the Boks will find themselves in an unfamiliar place, and no matter how good you are, you can’t score points without the ball.
Somehow, this England team has given me hope and that’s what I can’t stand - thanks a bunch lads!