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RWC Final: England vs South Africa - who has the advantage?

The England and South Africa squads are currently preparing for what it is likely to be the biggest game of their professional careers, as the two nations are set to contest the Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama on Saturday.

Aside from Ben Spencer replacing the injured Willi Heinz on the bench, Eddie Jones and England are unchanged for the game, which is a rematch of the 2007 RWC final, a game that they narrowly lost. As for the Springboks and Rassie Erasmus, they welcome back Cheslin Kolbe, with the livewire wing having missed their semi-final win over Wales due to an ankle injury.

England have won all five of their games at the tournament so far, including impressively dominant victories over Australia and New Zealand in the knockout rounds, whilst South Africa, if they can derail England’s growing momentum on Saturday, will become the first team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup after having lost a game earlier in the tournament.

We have run the rule over both teams and previewed where each will have their advantages as England bid for just their second title and the Springboks attempt to join New Zealand at the head of the pack with three titles.

Set-piece

Scrum – minor South Africa advantage

Coming into the tournament, you would have certainly argued that South Africa have the edge here, although England have since found parity and even advantages against two packs as solid as Australia and New Zealand. Both teams have packed their benches with adept scrummagers and there should be no relenting in the second half. The extra ballast from the South African second rows of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman could provide a slight edge.

Lineout – parity

The Springboks may have the most efficient lineout in the tournament coming into the game, though they have yet to play a defensive lineout group as potent at spoiling and stealing ball as England. Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes swarmed all over New Zealand’s lineout in the semi-final and they will fancy their chances of doing similar against South Africa. That said, Bongi Mbonambi and his array of targets have barely put a foot wrong so far.

Kicking game – minor England advantage

Both teams have leaned heavily on their kicking games, with England arguably having found more joy from that approach so far. There’s not much between Faf de Klerk, Ben Youngs, Handré Pollard, George Ford and Owen Farrell in terms of individual ability kicking from hand, but England’s extra option gives them versatility. They also boast potentially the best chasing unit in the international game, between Itoje, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and starting wings Jonny May and Anthony Watson.

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Watch: Rassie Erasmus and Francois Steyn pre-RWC final press conference

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Attack

Ball-carriers and handling (pack) – minor England advantage

It would have been almost unthinkable to go with England in this category 12 months ago, but Jones has found new options and/or elevated the carrying game of a number of his forwards. The entire starting front row offers more in that regard than South Africa, whilst Curry and Underhill have come to prominence alongside Billy Vunipola in this area. The Springboks don’t lack for options themselves, particularly Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit and de Jager, but England have their number in quantity and, arguably, quality. Well, until Malcolm Marx arrives from the bench, at the least!

Ball-carriers and handling (backs) – minor South Africa advantage

This might seem counter-intuitive given that England boast Manu Tuilagi in their ranks, not to mention the incisive threat of Watson, but the Springboks are fairly loaded, too. Damian de Allende is a nightmare to defend at inside centre and is capable of creating space when there is very little to work with, whilst Kolbe’s return will have England at action stations throughout. In addition to those two, there is also de Klerk’s running game to deal with. He has gone to the boot heavily so far this tournament, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him burst through a gap or two around the fringes come the final.

Control, discipline and tempo – moderate England advantage

This has been an area of real strength for England in the tournament. Against every opponent they have faced, they have dictated the tempo through a smart kicking game and intelligent play from Youngs, all of which is thanks to the work that has been done at the breakdown in both attack and defence. Youngs has been delivered quick and clean ball, whilst England have done a very good job of slowing their opponents’ ball, even when they keep as many players as possible on their feet and in the defensive line. The Springboks haven’t been bad in this area at all, though they haven’t delivered something as comprehensively controlled as England did against the All Blacks.

Defence

Fringe defence – slight South Africa advantage

We are being perhaps overly critical of England here, as they are not poor in this area, though it is a real area of strength for South Africa. Neither pack would be described as behemoths by modern standards, but what South Africa lose out slightly in to England in terms of mobility, they back up with physical stoutness close to the ruck in defence. England will have to be at their best to make significant gains on the pick and go or with one-out runners on Saturday.

Line-speed and decision-making – parity

From a pack perspective, you’d probably lean towards England here, with both their second rows and the flank pairing very comfortable defending in space and not sacrificing their decision-making as a result of their line-speed. As a defence, they attempt to force play back inside and they do it very well. We’ve called it parity because of the work Lukhanyo Am does at outside centre for the Springboks. His line-speed, decision-making and recovery speed – if the opposition are able to get outside of the blitz – are second to none in international rugby.

Aerial defence and positioning – slight England advantage

When we say slight, we mean it. Both Elliot Daly and Willie le Roux have been critiqued in these areas, although Daly’s efforts against Argentina were very impressive. We all know that le Roux is capable of that, too, even if his recent form has been a little flat. Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi are no slouches in the air and Kolbe in particular plays well above his size and weight, though they are up against two of the very best wings in this facet of the game. Watson and May have been ultra-reliable for England and assuming May’s hamstring injury is fully healed, it’s hard not to give England the edge here.

Watch: Cheslin Kolbe and Damian de Allende talk to the press ahead of the final

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RWC Final: England vs South Africa - who has the advantage?