#StrongerTogether. How apropos South Africa’s tournament slogan proved to be as one to 23 rose to the occasion to secure the Springboks’ third Webb Ellis Cup crown in style. Best described as beautiful brutality, the Springboks dominated England upfront and capitalised out wide, scoring two electrifying, title-sealing tries to carve out their unique place in history.
The 20-point triumph was the most convincing in Springbok history, dwarfing the 15-12 and 15-6 wins over the All Blacks and England in the 1995 and 2007 deciders respectively, and saw South Africa become the first team in history to lose a pool match and go on to clinch the crown.
Far more significantly, Siya Kolisi became the first black captain in history to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. The importance of Kolisi, who emerged from the impoverished black township of Zwide outside Port Elizabeth, holding the trophy aloft can be appreciated but never fully understood by rugby lovers outside of South Africa.
Only those who form part of the Rainbow Nation truly grasp the transcendent magnitude of seeing Kolisi lift the trophy 24 years after Francois Pienaar, also in the No.6 Green and Gold jersey, first had the honour after being presented the silverware by then-President, Nelson Mandela.
Sport, rugby, in particular, remains the ultimate unifier in a country that has made massive strides yet still struggles to truly band together. No nation NEEDED to win the World Cup more than South Africa. The players, all 33 used throughout the global showpiece, knew this, and it’s that national-building desire that drove them to a commanding victory over a much-vaunted England side who had sent the defending-champion All Blacks packing with a famous 19-7 win in the semi-finals.
Will it be a miracle fix for South Africa’s ongoing problems? No. But the iconic image of Kolisi, after having produced an inspired performance, hoisting the Holy Grail will do more for transformation of a historically white-dominated game than the polarising, politically-charged quota system ever has or will.
Highlighting individual players who stood out in the final feels forced and, frankly, unfair to the band of brothers who gave their blood, sweat and tears in the most important match of their lives. If one has too, you have to start with Kolisi – the inspirational skipper.
Francois Pienaar is remembered for being the perfect man to lead South Africa at the perfect time in 1995 when the wounds of the abolished Apartheid regime were still raw. Kolisi eclipsed Pienaar in that regard at the International Stadium Yokohama.
His superb showing was the stuff of legend, both as commanding captain and flank fantastic. The 28-year-old personified the passion of his team, tackling everything that moved and smashing into every ruck with no regard for his personal well-being. For Kolisi, it was clear – it was more than just a game – and as if written in the stars, he played the game he was seemingly born to play.
In his 50th Test, he made all 12 of his tackles, the fourth-most of the match, and won a turnover inside the Springboks’ half. He, alone, with his heroics on Saturday, will inspire a new generation of youngsters, particularly black youth, to develop and pursue Bok dreams of their own.
Then there was Duane Vermeulen, who cemented himself as a Springbok legend with his Man of the Match performance for the ages. The talismanic No.8 championed the Springboks’ physical surge as a one-man wrecking crew with ball-in-hand and on defence, making 49 metres – the most by a forward – with bulldozing carries in the trenches and punishing charges from restarts.
His reliability under the high ball, from restarts and as a sweeper, is a cut above the game’s other elite eighthmen and was once again of great benefit to the Springboks. His well-roundedness – as a bruising and skilful defender – was also evident, as he made seven bone-rattling hits and won two breakdown penalties, the first of which saw South Africa draw first blood in the eighth minute.
The prolific Pieter-Steph du Toit was in peak form as well and capped off a legendary collective effort from the Springbok loose trio. Like his fellow back-rowers, his workrate was exceptional. The team who go the extra mile usually get over the line in finals and the 27-year-old outworked the opposition in all facets, including chasing and contesting restarts, which saw him spark a break in the second half.
He covered oceans of space and played an integral role in South Africa winning the gainline battle with his dominant defence, the tireless lock-cum-flank making 11 tackles and winning a key maul turnover inside his half in the 47th minute.
The scrum battle was where the match was won and lost and Tendai Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe deserve all the credit in the world for their sheer dominance in the all-important set-piece, blasting the English back at the rate of knots and earning penalties which either kept the scoreboard ticking over, or gave the underdogs the territorial advantage.
Both were immense across the park, as well, Mtawarira making eight tackles and Malherbe no less than 11. For “The “Beast”, the most-capped prop in Springbok history (117), it was the perfect way to finish his Test career, while Malherbe – after copping criticism throughout the tournament for his workrate – made the ultimate statement.
Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch carried on where the starters left off as the “Bomb Squad”, as the Springbok bench refer to themselves, made a massive impact as expected. Franco Mostert, who replaced the injured Lood de Jager in the 21st minute, was in a class of his own, however, the big, athletic lock making a team-high 15 tackles.
Out wide, wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe were colossal. It was fitting that both flyers dotted down, just reward for their heroics throughout the tournament, first Mapimpi finishing off the opening try (and South Africa’s first-ever final five-pointer) in the 66th minute followed by Kolbe leaving England captain Owen Farrell and the rest of the cover defence for dead with trademark flair to seal the deal with seven minutes remaining.
The magnificent Mapimpi, who signed off with six tries, second only to Wales’ Josh Adams, ran for 45 metres while making two clean breaks and was excellent in the air, regaining two high balls with superior determination. Kolbe made 50 metres, two slicing breaks and skinned five would-be defenders with his dancing feet.
The diminutive dynamo was remarkable on defence, too, making a number of key spot tackles, including on towering lock Courtney Lawes inside the 22 on the 20-minute mark and then again in the 31st minute, in which he targeted the ball to snuff out offload opportunities.
Pivot Handré Pollard’s 22 points are unrivalled in a World Cup final and saw him finish as the tournament’s top point-scorer (69). He had some nervous moments, missing two kicks at goal, but was generally the most authoritative he’s been all tournament, making a match-high 67 metres.
Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, meanwhile, found the consistency and accuracy he’d lacked with his tactical kicking and was a terror on defence, making vital tackles and applying pressure that forced England into mistakes, like opposite number Ben Youngs’ wayward pass into touch in the 10th minute.
Finally, Lukhanyo Am showed his star qualities. Starved of possession for most of the tournament, with Damian de Allende (who was rock solid once again) acting as the backline battering ram in the Springboks’ tight, pragmatic game plan, the outside centre sensationally seized the day.
Undeniably brilliant, his class, composure and play-making prowess were there for the world to see, most tellingly putting Mapimpi in for his try with a perfect pass, having a key hand in Kolbe’s five-pointer and making two dangerous breaks (56 metres).
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Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at SARugby.com and senior staff writer at Rugby365.com, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.