In December 2016 I wrote a blog about the sorry state of South African rugby entitled "The worst Springboks ever". Fast-forward three years and I am eating my words ... South Africa won the Rugby World Cup on 2 November 2019 in such utterly convincing fashion that the country's name was inscribed on the trophy while there were still more than five minutes of the final match remaining!
South Africa had looked far from convincing during the 2019 World Cup Finals - they lost to New Zealand in a preliminary round-robin game, struggled to defeat minnows Japan in the quarter finals and only just scraped past Wales in the semi finals, winning by a mere 3 points. In fact, South Africa would have lost the semi final had their fly half not had a blinder with his kicking boot, slotting several very difficult kicks over the poles. England, their opponents in the final, had beaten Australia in the build up and simply destroyed New Zealand in the semi finals, a victory that had deservedly installed them as out and out favourites to win the trophy. New Zealand were defending champions and had won the World Cup twice in a row, so for their powerful team to be humbled the way they were by England was ominous.
But the final did not go at all the way it was predicted. From the kick off South Africa attacked, with purpose, speed and power. The intensity of their game did not let up and England were rattled into making basic mistakes. Their players looked shocked at the onslaught. The English scrum, which had been so dominant against New Zealand, was humiliated by South Africa and conceded penalty after penalty. By the time England woke up South Africa were 12-6 ahead, but even when England managed to mount a succession of furious attacks they were repulsed by steely and determined defence. And after England had thrown everything they had at South Africa and received nothing in return except bruises and a paltry 3 points from a single penalty, the fight seemed to go out of them.
Two second half tries by South Africa put the final nails into England's coffin. The match, and title of "World Champions" was won by South Africa for the third time, thus matching New Zealand's record of three wins (South Africa won the trophy in 1995, 2007 and 2019; New Zealand won it in 1987, 2011 and 2015).
Credit for the miraculous turnaround of a team that plumbed the depths of mediocrity in 2016 and 2017 must go to South Africa's head coach, Rassie Erasmus. This is a man with intelligence, vision and deep insight into the game, rare commodities indeed amongst South African rugby coaches over the past 12 years ...