OPINION: Sensational Springboks deserved to be crowned world champions
It was a fitting finale after 44 days of the ninth edition of Rugby World Cup, with the sensational South Africans turning in a classy display to secure the Webb Ellis Trophy for a third time in a deserved victory over England.
I had predicted the Springboks would become World Champions in my pre-tournament build-up - just as I had done in 2007 - and although I had some slight doubts after last weekend’s semi-final performances from the respective finalists - the Boks showed their strength up front and pace out back to brush the English challenge aside.
England never showed up, or at least were never afforded the chance to by a Boks side determined to equal New Zealand’s record of three outright successes.
Eddie Jones’ Red Roses had produced the performance of their lives a week earlier in the semi-finals as they completely outclassed the reigning back-to-back champions New Zealand.
The All Blacks had already beaten South Africa in the group stages, but there was always the expectancy that they would meet again in the final.
But England - who had failed to make the knockout stages when they hosted the tournament in 2015 - put paid to that with one of the most complete performances of the tournament - and in doing so had installed themselves as slight favourites for Saturday’s showpiece.
South Africa had failed to impress as they defeated Wales in the other semi-final.
The performances of both finalists was in complete contrast to their previous efforts.
The resurgence of rugby in South Africa over the past two years since former Munster coach, Rassie Erasmus, returned to his native homeland, has been impressive and was capped by a sensational display against the English in the 32-12 victory.
Backrow forward Siya Kolisi lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy as the Boks’ first-ever black captain in front of a crowd of 70,103 in the International Stadium Yokohama topped off a truly special night for South African rugby.
The Boks totally dominated the scrum after England lost tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler in the third minute, with the South African pack winning penalty after penalty in the set-piece and Handre Pollard, the Boks outhalf on target with everything - after he missed his first effort - he stroked towards the poles.
The South African defence was ridiculous, hammering the English ball carriers and forcing error after error.
And having worn England down, the Boks showed their class in the back division, sealing the game with two exceptional tries from wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe.
It was a complete display from Erasmus’ men and, rather worryingly, the former Munster boss believes this World Cup is only the start of the resurgence of South African rugby. And, to cap it all, at least one Irishman out in Japan collected a World Cup winner’s medal, former Munster man Felix Jones. A playing career with Province and Country cut short due to a neck injury, the backline play maker turned to coaching and was part of Erasmus’ backroom staff at Munster.
The 32-year-old then joined his former director of rugby in South Africa as defence consultant ahead of the World Cup - and now he has a gold medal.
Overall, the World Cup in Japan proved a success despite the unplanned issues around the weather.
The memory of the 86 people who died as a result of Typhoon Hagabis, did not go unforgotten, every knockout game observing a moment’s silence.
While it reminds us that rugby, like any sport, is only a game, and there are often more important things, it also reflected the need for the governing body to examine their regulations for future tournaments.
Three games were cancelled, including England v France and New Zealand v Italy, and while it did not have massive implications on who actually qualified for the last eight, there has to be an avoidance of similar possibilities in the future.
Hosts Japan welcomed the world and put on a superb tournament and their team also ensured their were plenty of sparks. Having stunned Ireland 19-12 in a group match, they went on to top the pool by eliminating Scotland.
In the quarter-finals they faced the side they had stunned in 2015, South Africa, Japan winning 34-32 in Brighton, but there was to be no similar upset this time around. However, by becoming the first Asian side to qualify for the knockout stages they increased the argument for World Rugby to do more to help progress the game for Tier Two Nations - a challenge that will not be easy to meet.
On the downside, Ireland’s Joe Schmidt did not get the final piece to his legacy or add that final part to his chapter as head coach - a first semi-final at a World Cup. The Irish underperformed once again at the global extravaganza with Schmidt and captain Rory Best, bowing out on the back of a disappointing campaign despite making the last eight once again.
However, what the pair have achieved with the squad over the past few seasons has also been remarkable, writing themselves into Irish Rugby folklore and setting high standards for their successors.
Warren Gatland bowed out of his role at Wales, taking them to a semi-final, but again unable to perform on the day against South Africa.
The 2021 British Lions tour to South Africa is now perfectly set up, with Gatland leading the Lions against Erasmus’ World Champions!
Steve Hansen bowed out as one of the most successful New Zealand coaches, in spite of being unable to make it three-in-a-row. But unlike in Ireland and Wales, the All Blacks will be back at the forefront of the game quickly.
And on a positive, what about Dungannon native Peter Nelson. His contract with Ulster was not extended at the end of last season - he was suddenly off across the World to Canada - he qualified through his Vancounver-born grandmother.
Having played in the Pacific Cup, Nelson was called into the World Cup squad and ended up featuring in three of the four pool games - the match against Namibia was cancelled due to the Typhoon - two of those games were against New Zealand and South Africa.
The Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan was a resounding success, an open tournament compared to recent previous editions in that any of the top six ranked sides could have won it; there were a few sprinklings of shocks along the way and sportsmanship on the whole was the winner - the defending champions New Zealand reflecting that right through to the final day.