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FEATURE Ox, Koch and Polly

Ox, Koch and Polly
7 months ago

Personally – cards on the table here – the heartfelt preference from the very start of this World Cup was for France and Ireland to close the show this Saturday; the novelty, the noise and a new – Northern – name on the pot, all of which, a fortnight back, was looking like a shrewd wager. Except that just when the rugby world appeared to be shifting on its very axis – hey, ho – we have an Old Firm final. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. 

But while we’ve two finalists in New Zealand and South Africa who’ve been here once or twice before, their passages through the semi finals were oil and water. We’ve no idea what really happens in Ian Foster’s wildest dreams – nor would we wish to know in all likelihood – but New Zealand’s towelling of Argentina was probably beyond any of them; seven tries at one end; a shut-out at the other; no stresses; no injuries and an extra day’s feet up ahead of the final. Better still, popcorn all round the following night to watch the green team and the white team shove each other’s heads through a rain-soaked mincer. Sweet as.  

Mind you for any neutral, England/South Africa was a tough watch; the very antithesis of Fiji/Portugal where, in Toulouse, the non-aligned were struggling to pick a preferred winner and, in Paris, a preferred loser. More than that, though, the match was an 80 minute eyesore. Put it this way, if you were treating yourself to a small slug of ginger beer every time either Joe Marchant or Jesse Kriel touched the ball, you’d have been parched by the final whistle.

Ian Foster
Ian Foster could afford to sit back and watch the second semi-final with popcorn (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images)

But for the committed, it was visceral; an almost narcotic night where what you needed on the sofa wasn’t so much a couple of cold ones but an oxygen mask. Up in the South Africa coaches’ box, Jacques Nienaber, looked as though he was eating the furniture; two seats down, Rassie Erasmus’s trousers appeared to be on fire. Frantic? Frenzied? It was all that and more. And not surprisingly. Just how many times can you kick a rugby ball straight down Freddie Steward’s throat and not wise up? 

But then, enter Ox, Koch and ‘Polly’ who, deep into the ticking clock, skewered the meaty English with ten unanswered points in just over ten minutes. A squirming scrum penalty, a torpedo of a touch-finder into the darkest of White corners, a battering-ram try and, finally, after yet another spit-roast scrum, a 49-metre coup de grâce straight through broken, English hearts. 

The referee and a system? Vindicated once more? Look, no question South Africa – heroically – dug themselves out of a hole; it’s what worthy World Champions do. But the more relevant, rational consideration is what were they doing in the ditch in the first place?

Will Handré Pollard ever in his life kick two better balls under that kind of pressure? As Ronan O’Gara tweeted the day afterwards: ‘Pollard … you’ve no idea how good that is.’ Beyond that, Ox Nché and Vincent Koch were bowling balls among skittles. Is there such a thing as inevitability? With these Springboks, it seems there might be. 

It was an equally inexorable evening on South African social media. ‘Guys I literally can’t breathe … Thank you #Springboks. You fought not only against the weather conditions but also the referee & a system. Rassie is vindicated once more!’ 

The referee and a system? Vindicated once more? Look, no question South Africa – heroically – dug themselves out of a hole; it’s what worthy World Champions do. But the more relevant, rational consideration is what were they doing in the ditch in the first place?

Faf de Klerk
South Africa had to empty their bench pretty quickly when chasing the game against a surprisingly good England side (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images)

Earlier last week – smug is as smug does – Erasmus sat down at a Springbok news conference and announced England’s team. Alas, he got three players wrong, some coincidence given that when he finally announced his own team, he once again got three players wrong. Ahead lay a sopping wet semi final, a singular, almost personal slugfest against the enflamed English and a match in which slide-rule game management and experience would be everything; it called, nay it screamed, for de Klerk, Pollard and Le Roux to start. 

Instead, Erasmus left all three on the bench and went with the team that’d played in a totally different quarter final against a totally different France, which is why he ended up on Saturday night chewing his clipboard and feverishly swapping horses in mid-stream. Now, do we credit the man for decisively – almost ruthlessly – correcting the mistake? Absolutely. But let’s not forget whose blunder it was in the first place or how close it came to being catastrophic. 

As for England, it’s tempting to consider their bravura performance as nigh on unrecognisable: ‘Who are these guys in white?’ said a stunned Nick Mullins on ITV and you understood entirely where he was coming from. There was a passion, a cussedness, a soul and an accuracy to their performance that we hadn’t seen since the opening match against Argentina. But, at root – let’s be honest – it was an all-too-familiar game-plan. 

I have no truck whatsoever with the Farrell floggers; the man is an irresistible and elemental force within this England team but in terms of on-field captaincy – not least the all-important management of the referee – Courtney Lawes should’ve kept the armband.

The English in this World Cup resemble a pianist who’s spent the past six weeks perfecting the one tune. It may be more ‘Chopsticks’ than Chopin’s ‘Prelude in E Minor’ but Steve Borthwick’s side played it nigh on note perfect in Paris. His team-sheet tweaks – Marler, Martin and Steward – were masterful and Owen Farrell’s game management wasn’t far short of exemplary, not least the weight, direction and timing of his colossal drop goal. 

But, on the subject of Farrell, somewhat less smart was giving away a cheap, first half penalty, then yapping back to the referee and conceding the ten metres that took Manie Libbok within range of the posts; three free points in a one point game. Look, I have no truck whatsoever with the Farrell floggers; the man is an irresistible and elemental force within this England team but in terms of on-field captaincy – not least the all-important management of the referee – Courtney Lawes should’ve kept the armband.

Courtney Lawes
Courtney Lawes has shown himself to be a both a fine leader and player for England (Photo by Franco Arland//Getty Images)

And yet for all England’s oaken endeavour on the night, let’s not forget that they kicked away 93% of their possession and not once looked like scoring a try. Could they have added more strings to their bow in the past, what, ten months of the Borthwick era? Erstwhile attack coach, Nick Evans, certainly thought so. Or is this the imaginative limit of a team built very much in the Head Coach’s image; in short, can England evolve into more than a one-tune pony? You’d have to hope they can but, if you’re a supporter, patience might well turn out to be a virtue. 

Beyond the ropes, it’s been a big two weeks for ITV who’ve finally got all their boots on the ground; accordingly, the smiles and the body language have been infectious. If the bean counters are listening, there’s nothing that compensates for being there and allowing your audience to truly smell the coffee. It’s one of the reasons 8.7 million people suddenly decide to tune in. 

So will it be the green or the black this coming weekend? More pertinently, how much have two, successive, one-point squeaks taken out of the ‘Boks? Whom do they select at half-back? How do they load their bench? Yes, they’ve options but they’ve quandaries too.

Certainly it was a delight to see Maggie Alphonsi steal the show on Saturday, largely with her pinpoint observations but also with her Crayola blue – borderline Azure – overcoat. Personally, I thought the addition of a pert, primrose pashmina would’ve made for a winning combination but you suspect Maggie would consider even the smallest scarf to be a sign of weakness. It’d be a little like Eben Etzebeth making a claim on his medical insurance. 

It was also good to see – or at least to assume – that Lawrence had turned up wearing his bulldog briefs. Tempted by the tireless Jill Douglas – now there’s a woman with some air miles – to share his thoughts on the officiating, LBND fired both barrels; ‘Well, Ben O’Keeffe’s going to be the talking point, isn’t he, because he won them the game,’ he said. You just love it when Social Media goes mainstream. 

So will it be the green or the black this coming weekend? More pertinently, how much have two, successive, one-point squeaks taken out of the ‘Boks? Whom do they select at half-back? How do they load their bench? Yes, they’ve options but they’ve quandaries too. That said, if they end up defending their pot as the World Ranked #1 side having played every team ranked #2 to #6, then hats off to them. 

Handre Pollard
Handre Pollard showed his class with a late, late 50m penalty to win the game for South Africa (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

New Zealand, though, are the bookies’ favourites by a cat’s whisker. They could scarcely have timed their run to the line any better and if the likes of Lomax, Frizzell, Mo’unga, Tele’a, Jordan and the Barrett boys   can keep the flame burning, they could yet have a clear edge. You sense, certainly you hope, that it’ll go down to the wire. You’d also hope that Wayne Barnes has a word-perfect whistle. There are some consolations to England losing a semi final. 

Comments

13 Comments
G
Ger 231 days ago

Wow. 7/1 split for RSA with only La Roux as cover for the backs. One of these days, that's really going to hurt the Boks. In the interests of a good final, I hope it’s not tomorrow.

J
Jaco 235 days ago

Great article Graham.
England should have won this game. We were extremely lucky (again).
Handrê rightly gets a lot of credit, but Ox is the man that stole it for us.

E
Etienne 235 days ago

Boks played too many hard games, especially against France. I don’t know if it’s humanly possible to put in another performance of the same intensity as against Ireland and France. Those two games were at a finals level already.

It will be another rainy day though. I don’t know if that helps or hurts.

I cannot see the Boks winning, but they don’t seem to know how to lose either.

It’s just one more game. Who knows, maybe they pull it off.

A
Allan 235 days ago

A long way down this column the truth eventually slipped out - a kick & hope game with little or no try ever happening!

A
Ace 235 days ago

“what were they doing in the ditch in the first place?”

How about:

  1. Coming off the back of an incredibly intense, physical match and emotional victory against the hometown favourites;
  2. Playing against a team who coasted into the semis, a team who did not have to deliver anywhere near the physical intensity as their opponents;
  3. Playing against a team who were - rightly -regarded as a bunch of no-hopers after they scraped through against a few tier 2 teams;
  4. Playing against a team who had a limited game plan that required good defence and precious little else;
  5. Playing against a team who had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.
That’s why they found themselves in the hole.

But you know what? Against all odds, they dug themselves out of that hole and they won. They actually scored a try, something England never even came close to.

They won.

J
Jon 235 days ago

Couple of observations / questions
1) The boks looked tired and disorganised at the start - does it make sense to start Pollard and hope to build a lead on the ABs? I think Libbok plays better with a lead and he is more athletic/faster than Handre?
2) The outlook is for rain at Stade de France for most/all this week. I think vs the ABs, the wet favours RSA a bit more.
3) Does Duane have another game in him? or roll w Wiese and absorb some of that AB backrow damage?
4) If the games features a lot of high-ball, the RSA wingers are shorter in general. Any way tactically to minimise the mismatches here?
5) what is the issue w bok lineouts? I know some of the throws aren’t start but they seem to lack confidence in Eben / first jumper to get up and win ball

A
Andrew 235 days ago

Despite being a fervent Bok fan, I could easily have watched Ireland vs. France in the final. Together with the Boks and the ABs they produced the best rugby in the tournament, in most part, against one another. I would love to see the Boks win on Saturday but if the ABs win then so be it - they have been the greatest consistent competitor to the Boks since the dark ages and also in the period since the last World Cup in which they have beaten the Boks a fair few times. Hoping for dry weather, Wayne Barnes as referee and a great rounding out occasion for the final. Go Boks, but immense respect to the All Blacks.

L
Luke 235 days ago

This article is hard to read but very fair. Glad we clinched the win but boy there needs to be some soul searching this week. Having said that maybe this is the humble pie Rassie needs to get that brain of his clicking for the final. Ironically the one thing that could do it for the Boks is exactly what they got; a very humbling performance and a narrow win.

Glad you also make the point of Farrell. He’s been let off the hook too easy. He cost his team the game and needs to come to terms with that.

B
BigMaul 235 days ago

“Owen Farrell’s game management wasn’t far short of exemplary”

What game did you watch? I’m sorry but we need to stop this ridiculous Farrell fawning. Game management is exactly what let us down. When on top, England lacked ambition, kicked for posts instead of taking tries and then went into their shell in the second half trying to defend the lead. It was awful game management. let’s stop praising the guy for failing. Please.

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