Remember the last time England and South Africa met in a World Cup final? Jacob Whitehead recaps events from 12 years ago
Flashback: The 2007 Rugby World Cup Final
England and South Africa will face-off in Yokohama on Saturday in this year’s World Cup final, but it is not the first time these two sides have met with the Webb Ellis trophy at stake. Let’s rewind 12 years to 2007 to see what happened in their first meeting…
In a way, 2007’s final is very similar to this year’s edition, except with the positions reversed. Whilst England had lost heavily in the group stage back then (36-0 to South Africa), this year the Springboks lost to New Zealand.
Just as South Africa found their way to the final after a succession of comfortable victories 12 years ago, Eddie Jones’s England have emulated them now. Of course, Jones was involved with the Boks at that World Cup and is credited for improving their back-line play as technical advisor.
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South Africa’s 2007 team were a golden generation. While a few veterans remained in the team – notably prop Os Du Randt, who played in their 1995 triumph, and full-back Percy Montgomery, the majority of their squad were in the prime of their careers.
Captain John Smit led a pack that included one of the all-time great lock combinations in Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, whilst flankers Juan Smith and Schalk Burger would be in serious contention for a Team of the Decade. In the back-line, scrum-half Fourie du Preez had taken on the mantle of the great Joost van der Westhuizen with aplomb and flyer Bryan Habana scored eight tries in the tournament.
England, under the stewardship of Brian Ashton, were a stark contrast. They were an assorted combination of odds and ends; a mash-up of the 2003 vintage, players previously overlooked and brief but brightly-burning stars (Mathew Tait and Paul Sackey anyone?) .
Captain Phil Vickery was the centrepiece of a particularly grizzled pack, sporting the belligerence of hooker Mark Regan, the indefatigability of Simon Shaw and the experience of 2003 winner Ben Kay.
Jonny Wilkinson, the crown prince of English rugby, had returned from four injury-ridden years to guide the side to the final, scoring all but five of his team’s points in the knockout stages. Maybe, just maybe, a little Wilkinson magic could win England their second consecutive World Cup trophy.
The sides met in a slightly deflated Stade de France, with Paris still reeling from France’s semi-final defeat the week before. It was not a classic, but England would push the Springboks all the way.
They did not start well, losing their first lineout before Tait was penalised for holding on and Montgomery kicked the three points. But England grew into the game and after good work from Sackey, South Africa would concede a penalty themselves, with which Wilkinson bisected the posts.
Five minutes later and Ashton would have his head in his hands, as Lewis Moody conceded a real coach-killer of an infraction by tripping Butch James, a misdemeanour that was quickly punished on the scoreboard.
Each side would miss attempts at goal and as the half progressed South Africa looked likely to add to their advantage. First Smit was held up short, before a desperate England killed the ball after the subsequent scrum. The points were duly taken by South Africa, who led 9-3 at the break.
Soon after the restart came the game’s most iconic and controversial moment. Outside-centre Tait picked up a pass from scrum-half Andy Gomarsall on the halfway line, facing a well-set South African wall.
The confidence of youth has no bounds and Tait jinked through a crack between the South African centres to leave four Springboks trailing in his wake. Montgomery was put away with a hip swerve, and with only Matfield and JP Pietersen pursuing, the latter with an unfavourable angle, Tait looked destined to write himself into the annals of World Cup final history.
But then, searing over from the other wing, came Habana. Tait was forced to check his run and was cut down by a backtracking Matfield only two metres out. No matter, as Gomarsall fired the ball out to the wing via a beautiful Wilkinson flick, where Mark Cueto dived over in the corner, despite the best efforts of South African No 8 Danie Rossouw.
Try for England! After all the tournament’s tribulations, they were only a Wilkinson conversion away from taking the lead in the final – or so we thought…
Referee Alain Rolland consulted Australian TMO Stuart Dickinson, asking if Cueto was in touch. His toe had just grazed the line, with the ball inches away from being grounded. On such margins are finals won and lost. After a delay that felt like an eternity, Dickinson disallowed the try – to the visible shock of Cueto.
England received the scant consolation of a penalty from South African interference at the previous ruck to close the gap to 9-6. It would be as close as they would come.
Five minutes later Martin Corry would be penalised and Montgomery converted to restore his side’s six-point lead. With 20 minutes left, 20-year-old centre Frans Steyn cannoned over a penalty from halfway to ensure England would need two tries to win.
Vickery’s men would attempt both a Wilkinson drop-goal and a lineout maul from close to the try-line, but both would fail in the face of dogged South African defence. The Springboks would close out the game with a scrum, and kick the ball out into touch to spark jubilant scenes. They had beaten to the defending champions to win their second Webb Ellis Cup.
The core of that Boks team would go on to defeat the Lions 2-1 in a classic series in 2009, whilst the England side disintegrated, to be almost entirely replaced under the leadership of Martin Johnson before the 2011 World Cup.
Neither side have been back to the final since the 20 October 2007. Now, 12 years later, they’ll face each other once again.
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