Rugby World Cup 2023: Are South Africa even better than 2019 world champions?


England are all too aware of the challenge awaiting them.

A Rugby World Cup semi-final with South Africa is a repeat of the 2019 final, in which they were soundly beaten.

England attack coach Richard Wigglesworth says the Springboks have developed even further as they look to win a fourth title and become the most successful nation in World Cup history.

A quarter-final victory over hosts France on Sunday ensured the Springboks ended Ireland’s 15-month spell as the world’s number one side.

Wigglesworth added: “How special is it to beat France, in the form they are in, in their own back yard in front of their own fans?

“That was a special performance from an incredible team.

“They have a core group of players and they have added quality to it. They are an impressive outfit.

“They have evolved a lot in how they move the ball or how they exit. They have got more variety and have multiple threats now.”

Power up front

Of the eight forwards that began the 2019 final, six of them lined up from the start against France; Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen.

Prop Steven Kitshoff has taken the place of the retired Tendai Mtawarira, who was commonly known as ‘The Beast’, while Franco Mostert played at lock instead of Lood de Jager.

Inspirational captain Kolisi, 2019 world player of the year Du Toit and powerhouse number eight Vermeulen make up a formidable back row, while Etzebeth is widely regarded as one of rugby’s toughest enforcers.

Malcolm Marx’s tournament-ending knee injury in the pool stage saw Mbonambi step up at hooker in a well-drilled forward pack that prides itself on physicality and defence.

Only Wales and Japan have made more tackles than the Boks in this tournament.

But there was one moment against the hosts when South Africa asserted their physical edge with supreme confidence.

Eben Etzebeth celebrates

Eben Etzebeth’s second-half try helped South Africa come from behind to beat France in their World Cup quarter-final
France kicked high and long to Damian Willemse inside the South Africa 22, but rather than return the favour or kick for touch, the unopposed full-back caught the ball and called for the mark before quickly opting for a scrum.

The Stade de France was dumbfounded.

The nearest blue shirts were still metres away. Why bring on the unnecessary pressure of a scrum deep in your own territory?

England fly-half Paul Grayson said on BBC Radio 5 Live: “A full-back calling for a scrum and asking his forwards to run back 40 metres to scrummage – in normal terms, that’s you done as a full-back, you would be chucked out of your team unceremoniously.

“But clearly they’d discussed it at some point. That was a massive flex, intellectually and physically, South Africa got the upper hand in the scrum and that’s what won them the game.”

Mbonambi said the scrum will continue to “100% be key” against England, adding: “We do pride ourselves on our scrum and maul, but on Sunday we made a couple of mistakes that almost cost us the game, so we definitely need to look at ourselves in that aspect.”

‘Intensity and physicality like no other team’
If anything, South Africa’s strength in depth in the forward pack is even greater than it was four years ago.

They went with six forwards on the bench in the 2019 final, but could they go for a seven-one split on Saturday, as they did for the pool game against Ireland? And if they do, will England have any answers?

Reviewing the Springboks’ defensive effort to hold on to their lead in the second half against France, ex-Ireland international Shane Horgan told BBC Radio 5 Live: “It was an intensity and physicality that no other team in world rugby brings. That’s what their game is built on.

“I saw a great clip, it was [director of rugby] Rassie Erasmus talking to his team probably a couple of years ago, saying why they bring players on and off in a game.

“There are tactical reasons, yes, but he said they don’t take someone off for missing a kick or not catching a ball, it’s when the level of intensity and of work-rate drops.

“If you stop getting up off the ground as quickly as possible, if you stop doing those extra yards that nobody else will see apart from you and the coach, if you don’t be as disruptive as possible at the breakdown, that’s when they make the change.

“That’s clearly obvious in the way South Africa play and it works for them.”

Greater potency behind the scrum
As well as retaining much of their set-piece power from 2019, this Springboks’ team is slightly more dynamic after learning lessons from their defeat by France in November 2022.

Erasmus said his side could no longer just rely on “mauling, scrumming and close-contact work” after the 30-26 loss in Marseille.

“We had to adapt and score tries through more open, fluent, running rugby,” said Erasmus. “You can see in our try-scoring tally there’s a lot scored by our backs, more than our forwards.”

Cheslin Kolbe scores a try against France
Cheslin Kolbe, who crossed in the quarter-final win over France, was a try-scorer in South Africa’s 2019 final win over England
Handre Pollard’s game management and accurate boot led the Springboks to their third world title in Japan, but there is now a new man charged with directing the attack.

Manie Libbok’s balanced running and creativity, which included an excellent no-look kick-pass for Kurt-Lee Arendse’s try against Scotland in their opening pool game, gives them an added edge at fly-half.

Libbok came under fire in the defeat by Ireland for his inaccurate goal kicking, before being reinstated as the starting 10 against France.

He showed he was capable of running a gameplan and his high, wide kick to pressure France youngster Louis Bielle-Biarrey worked wonders. The hosts failed to claim the ball and Damian de Allende was the beneficiary, scooping it up to charge over the line.

Libbok was partnered by the breakneck speed of Cobus Reinach rather than Faf de Klerk at scrum-half.

Wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Arendse both scored against France with their devastating pace, which the former also utilised to courageously charge down a Thomas Ramos conversion attempt.

Kolisi said after the France match: “It was a one-point game. Things like the charge-down from Cheslin, you don’t see that every day. It was going to take something special for us to win.”

Only New Zealand, France and Ireland have scored more tries than South Africa at this World Cup, while England have scored seven fewer in their five games so far.

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