England have been waiting for an opportunity to raise the Webb-Ellis Cup for over a decade. Their form this World Cup has been indisputably good: they are strong favourites walking onto the field in Yokohama on Saturday.
The ball takes to the air and as the camera pans past officials and coaches, it finds its mark on Eddie Jones. He is a man famed for his reserved calm, but he is betrayed by his expression. This is the most important match his career has seen.
The third minute sees the first scrum. England should be worried. The South African pack outweighs them heavily and it shows. A glint of energy and Faf De Klerk controls it. They cycle just back from the England line and they are looking dangerous.
South Africa quickly capitalise. Another scrum catches England out and as the ball flies over the posts, their opponents are up by three. Drawing first blood forces England onto the back foot and after an insatiably tense first ten, South Africa are looking strong.
The Boks look like animals in attack. A scrappy lineout goes to ground and is recovered by a ferocious posse who seem exceptionally dominant in the set piece. England need to regroup and rally before the first quarter is out. This South African side have undergone complete reform after their meeting with Wales last week.
‘Swing Low’ echoes through Yokohama – the English nation is there. South Africa are there too and as they win another scrum, England enter the second quarter truly on the back foot. They summon strength and contain the persistent attack. They are strong but after a turnover with Jonny May receiving, he is met with an immovable wall of green – South Africa’s defense is stronger.
England answer with swift inside lines. South Africa concede and Owen Farrell equalises. England ram their foot back in the door. ‘Swing Low’ sounds again and the crowd is electric. England play wide on the South Africans’ 22m but are hunted down: they are far back now and lose their moment. Farrell holds on too long and misses the offload but a break in the phase comes back for an England penalty advantage. Their established hold in the South African half is rewarded – six all.
With a minute left in the half, Elliot Daly knocks it on and the resulting scrum pushes the Boks into a cracking position at the end of the half. England concede, 12-6 South Africa.
The teams are back out. The South Africa scrum really is a demonstration of how a pack should behave. Aggressive, controlled and cocky, England still have no response. De Klerk again runs rings around their piece and once more the ball sails over, converting English weakness into points.
England are fed up and at the close of the third quarter, turn the scrum. This momentum gives Farrell the power he needs to send the ball over for three – England take a boost in morale.
Into the final twenty and the Boks come in at the side. The floodlights are blinding but light the way for Farrell’s kick and put three more on the board. This will be the last moment of hope for England.
With fifteen minutes left on the clock, South Africa make a remarkable break in the left channel. They take numbers to England’s lacking defense and put a kick over the top. Lukhanyo Am collects and sees Makazole Mapimpi. He’s over the line. Seven beautiful points. England are tired. They build a scrum before the Boks’ 5m. Jones’s men are trembling and South Africa are time-wasting. England get a taste of their own game.
They can’t breach the green defense and play moves back into their half. The ball is South Africa’s and du Toit sees the hands of Cheslin Kolbe. The roaring winger spins up and leaves Farrell in the dust to score. Handre Pollard takes pleasure in taking two more. It’s over.
The Webb-Ellis Cup, now triumphantly inscribed with the words ‘South Africa’, is, for four years at least, out of England’s reach. England 12-32 South Africa. ‘Swing Low’ is silent.
Image: Richard Allport via Wikimedia Commons