TOKYO — Oct. 31, 2019: The adage that rugby games are won up front will never be more true than in Saturday’s World Cup final when the massive, mobile packs of South Africa and England clash in Yokohama but the battle of the midfield could be just as crucial.
England’s midfield axis of flyhalf George Ford, inside centre Owen Farrell and centre Manu Tuilagi were instrumental in their 19-7 semi-final victory over double defending champions New Zealand.
Ford took control of the flow of the game in the second half, while Farrell and Tuilagi kept the ball moving forward, and one of the men tasked with stopping the trio on Saturday admitted it would be quite a challenge.
“Every week is a battle, this week is a bit different,” said Springboks inside centre Damian de Allende, who will link with centre Lukhanyo Am in a strong defensive midfield combination with big, physical flyhalf Handre Pollard inside the pair.
“Obviously Manu Tuilagi is a massive ball carrier and very powerful. It’s just another challenge.
“I’m sure I won’t hold back and he won’t hold back, it’s a World Cup final you want to win.”
Ford and Farrell were impressive against the All Blacks, especially in attack. The duo are superb tactical kickers and passers who can shift the ball wide quickly to dangerous wingers Anthony Watson and Jonny May.
“They’re both great players, both got a massive kicking game, also very good passers of the ball, they carry nicely as well, have very good vision as well,” de Allende added.
While Ford was expected to be targeted as a weak defensive link last week by the All Blacks, the flyhalf stood firm and made 13 of his 15 tackles as New Zealand’s forwards ran at him.
What that did was create a point of attack for the England loose forwards close to the ruck and allowed them to contest for turnover ball as he made his tackles.
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus had expected England coach Eddie Jones to stick with the Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi axis because they gave the midfield balance and he trained the side specifically to face that combination this week.
“We have probably prepared the most for that,” Erasmus said.
“That will unfortunately mean Damian will have to tackle and Handre will have to stand his ground, and Lukhanyo and Frans (Steyn) when he comes on, because those are hard runners and good hands.
“The way they are playing at the moment physically and dominating then striking really well from second or third phase.… there are not a lot of weaknesses.”
Farewells and redemption the themes for third-place playoff
Both head coaches, one captain and a host of other players will be saying farewell to test rugby on Friday when New Zealand and Wales meet in the third-place playoff, with both sides also seeking a little redemption.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen is stepping down after 16 years with the side, eight as an assistant under Graham Henry and eight as head coach, after the game at Tokyo Stadium.
Warren Gatland, meanwhile, is leaving the Wales job after 12 years in charge to take over at his hometown club, the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand.
Both men will walk away with solid coaching credentials.
Hansen has been involved with an All Blacks side that has set the bar for professional teams over the last 15 years and had an unparalleled run of success, while Gatland steered Wales to four Six Nations titles and brought greater depth and standards to the side.
In addition, All Blacks captain Kieran Read and several other veterans, Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams, are likely to be pulling on the jersey for the final time.
Both sides will also be keen to put the disappointment of losing last weekend behind them, with the All Blacks missing out on the chance of a third successive title and Wales yet to reach their first final.
Wales have added motivation as they have not beaten the All Blacks since 1953, a run of 30 matches.
“They (Wales players) are disappointed not to be in the final but have the chance to create a little bit of history against the All Blacks,” Gatland said on Wednesday.
“It has been a long time, 66 years, not to beat a side. We have had success against every other nation. There is definitely something at stake – a lot of pride – and a victory for us would be pretty special.”
While many pundits, fans and perhaps even players have wondered at the purpose of third-place playoffs, the All Blacks have made clear it is still a test match against Wales.
“It’s an important test match for a number of reasons,” Hansen said. “One, we’ve just come off a loss. Two, it’s Wales and we’ve got a history with them that we need to keep feeding.
“We’ve got a legacy and a responsibility to that legacy.”
Hansen therefore selected all of his veteran players who are leaving New Zealand rugby after Friday’s match, with Read leading the side in his 127th test.
Wales, however, have been severely affected by injuries, and Gatland has had no choice but to make nine changes to the side that were pipped by South Africa.
“It wasn’t really difficult at all because we didn’t have huge choice in the backs,” Gatland said.
“Some guys, we realise this will probably be the last World Cup game. We recognise that and we’ve just made a couple of changes to freshen the legs as well. — Reuters