There is often talk about ‘moments that swing a final’. Small events or passages of play that are seen to influence momentum, pressure and, ultimately, the result. These moments are often clung to by the defeated side; presenting them as a series of ‘what ifs’ that narrativise the defeat as a case of bad luck rather than bad performance.
In England’s defeat to South Africa on Saturday, there certainly were these moments: Kyle Sinckler’s concussion within three minutes of kick-off, Owen Farrell’s missed penalty on the fifty fourth minute that essentially led to a nine-point swing, or South Africa’s resolute defence thirty minutes in, able to rebuttal England’s attack on the try-line for twenty five phases.
However, these cannot be used to paint a narrative of ‘what-ifs’, or the idea that the game went down to the fine margins. England were comprehensively outplayed, in a game where power proved the decisive factor.
Almost to a man South Africa were better. They dominated the scrums, marching through the English pack that could have done with Joe Marler’s influence from the start. In the loose the Springboks’ back-row did to England what England did to the All Blacks: isolating runners and sniping around the fringes to turn over the ball. Meanwhile, England’s backs looked overwhelmed and disjointed, unsettled by South Africa’s rush defence whilst the men in green provided individual brilliance when needed in creating Makazole Mampimpi and Cheslin Kolbe’s tries.
It was both an inspired and an inspiring performance by the South Africans. They broke tradition by finally scoring a try in a World Cup Final and made history when Siya Kolisi – the first black captain for the Springboks – lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.
From the first minute England didn’t look the same team. Ball was slow, passes went to ground and where runners had broken through New Zealand tackles last week, against the Springboks they were pushed back, unable to breach the gain line.
In the end, Warren Gatland was right. England had shown their hand in the semi-final against New Zealand, they’d played their wildcard and South Africa had seen it. The Springboks on the other-hand had fought out a tough yet inconspicuous semi-final against Wales and benefited from going into the final as underdogs with a point to prove.
Ultimately, World Cups come down to timing and peaking at the right moment. England peaked in their semi-final against New Zealand and couldn’t reach that same level on Saturday. On the other hand, South Africa pretty much flew under the radar until it really mattered, playing the performance of their life and winning more than just the ‘moments’ to secure World Cup glory.
By Will Sewell.