Springboks win north-vs-south battle

South Africa may have reclaimed the World Cup for the southern hemisphere after a one-off win by England in 2003, but that is not to say that the debate over who is in the ascendancy has been resolved.

For many, the Springboks may have been deserved winners of the William Webb Ellis trophy, adding to their success in 1995, but their tactics in the 15-6 win over England in the final were decidedly of northern values.

The Boks showed the English that they could match them at their own game, keeping it tight with the scrum dominating and very little fodder for the backs, who had scored tries aplenty in previous matches.

It said it all that the man of the match was lock Victor Matfield, who must have just shaded it over fellow second-rower Bakkies Botha, with whom he has forged probably the best partnership in Test rugby over the past four years.

However, for Boks captain John Smit the World Cup was not about whether or not the southern hemisphere had regained the upper hand.

”I don’t think it is relevant whether this was a Tri-Nations versus Six Nations tournament,” said the 29-year-old hooker. ”It was down to the team that turned up and was in form and played not for regional pride, but for themselves.”

The six-week tournament was a roller-coaster ride. All the Six Nations heavyweights faced elimination in their final pool matches, but England and France then eliminated Australia and the All Blacks respectively in their quarterfinals.

For outgoing Wallabies coach John Connolly, it was a one-off affair. ”They [the Australians] won’t forget that defeat,” he said. ”It’s all part of a growing situation with young players and players need time to grow and they’ll be a lot better for it.

”As disappointed as we are, it was a one-off game and replay that match a half-dozen times and you’ll get a different result; we just couldn’t hold on to the ball.”

However, to France’s South African-born prop Pieter de Villiers, the gritty tactics employed by the English against Australia and by his side against the All Blacks had paved the way for their victories.

”We came back to the dressing room [at half-time] and we were told to keep it up, to not change our tactics, to keep doing what we were doing,” said De Villiers, whose team pinned back the All Blacks with deep, penetrating kicks. ”And then around the 50- to 60=minute mark, we saw the difference.”

One side who played more like the northern giants’ style were Argentina, and it was no coincidence that about 90% of their squad play in Europe.

Victories against hosts France, Ireland and Scotland were forged around keeping it tight, mastering the opposition’s scrum and letting flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez wreak havoc with his drop goals or centre Felipe Contepomi’s penalties.

Who were the best players of the 2007 World Cup?

Victor Matfield (South Africa: age 30)

Confirmed his status as the world’s leading lock with a series of towering displays, none more impressive than his contribution to the Springboks’ 15-6 final win over England. Never looked like losing a ball when the line-out target on South Africa’s throw and denied England a platform to build their game. England lock Ben Kay said South Africa didn’t have a ”complicated line-out”. That may be so, but with Matfield as the middle jumper it was mightily effective.

Bryan Habana (South Africa: age 24)

One of the most thrilling sights in present-day rugby union is to watch the Springbok wing, also deceptively strong, in full flight. During the tournament he equalled Jonah Lomu’s 1999 record of eight tries at a World Cup and demonstrated there was more to his game than pure pace. For example, the first of his two tries against Argentina saw him regather his own precise chip ahead before sprinting clear. Amid all the rows about whether there were too many or too few black players in South Africa’s side, no one could question Habana’s right to a place.

Juan Martin Hernandez (Argentina: age 25)

Nicknamed the ”Magician”, the flyhalf’s touch may have deserted him during the semifinal defeat against South Africa but he was otherwise assured as the Pumas claimed a deserved third place — their best World Cup finish — to upset the old world order. Watching Hernandez gain Argentina field position with a series of lengthy and well-directed downfield kicks, as well as showing good passing skills when launching attacks with ball in hand, you had to remind yourself he normally plays at fullback for Paris club Stade Francais.

Akapusi Qera (Fiji: age 23)

For years the rugby world at large has marvelled at the play of Fiji’s backs, whose handling skills have made the Pacific Island nation a major force in the sevens game. But this World Cup showed that they were adding nous up front to go with their renowned flair and of no one was this more true than flanker Qera. He scored the first of Fiji’s four tries in a dramatic 38-34 win over Wales when his excellent support play crowned a breathtaking move. Significantly, Wales’s fight back only began when he was in the sin bin. Sure to become a fans’ favourite with English side Gloucester.

Finau Maka (Tonga: age 30)

With his huge Afro hairstyle he was a hard man to miss in France. But any thoughts that the number eight was all style and no substance were soon dismissed. You don’t play in the back row at Toulouse, one of France’s leading clubs, just because of a distinctive appearance. In front of a global audience, he was able to demonstrate the tough-tackling and hard-charging game that are the key ingredients of his play, as was seen during the surprise win over Samoa and the narrow defeat to South Africa. Although qualified by residence for France, was overlooked by coach Bernard Laporte.

Andrew Sheridan (England: age 27)

The qualified bricklayer cemented his position as one of the best props around by becoming the front-row keystone of England’s scrum — the centrepiece of England’s march to the final. He gave Wallaby prop Matt Dunning a wretchedly torrid time during the quarterfinal win over Australia where England bullied their opponents out of the match and was impressive during the semifinal victory when up against a far more streetwise French front row. At 1,93m and 122kg, he is an imposing figure, yet off the field he is quietly spoken almost to the point of being shy. — Sapa-AFP

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Pirate Irwin
Pirate Irwin

Pirate Irwin is a journalist with Agence France Presse , who has been based in Paris for 16 years having initially arrived for just a six month summer stay. Born in Ireland in 1965 and educated at Eton and Institute for Foreign Students in Tours after missing out on University by a large margin. His first name is a gift from his grandfather inspired by Radio Caroline but not appreciated by a Roman Catholic priest at christening. 

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