Rassie Erasmus has been appropriately named coach of the year for 2019 after his side beat England in the final of a thrilling World Cup tournament in Japan.
It doesn't come as a surprise, since Rassie took charge everyone could see how they were improving and coming good for the tournament.
At the same time I’m not sure too many people backed them to go the whole way. I had picked England as the team to stop the All Blacks from winning a third successive World Cup and go on to win the tournament from the time they turned Ireland over in Dublin.
You could feel their stock rising and it would be typical of them to peak in a World Cup year but they came up short at the last hurdle.
Their performance in the semi-final had most people thinking that they were too strong because they had it all, handling, offloads, the game plan and tactics - but also the brute force to back it up.
I feel like I knew the man for a couple of years but in reality it was one short summer from start to finish
Unfortunately for them they were off the pace from the start last Saturday. You don’t often see Ben Youngs pass the ball into touch on the same day that George Ford kicked a tactical kick out on the full, Billy Vunipola passed a ball along the ground in front of his posts and Owen Farrell missed a kick at goal.
Kyle Sinckler being sidelined merely a few minutes into the match was another small factor because it meant Dan Cole had to play 77 minutes at tighthead.
However, that is assuming that Sinckler wouldn’t have struggled and in all honesty most tightheads would have struggled against the force of the Springboks on Saturday. England even tried putting George Kruis in the second row in the second half to add more weight in behind Dan Cole but it made little difference.
Joe Marler came on for Mako Vunipola and bought his side a penalty but it was only in exchange for the penalty that went against him afterwards. South Africa still had the upper hand in the setpiece which goes a long way to winning the most important matches.
In fact they lost their hooker and a second row to injury in the same game and it’s as if nothing even changed, the next guy just came in and did the very same job. They changed both props at around 47 minutes and their first act was winning a penalty in the scrum.
South Africa led the tournament in terms of penalties won in the scrum, lineouts won on their own throw, lineouts won on the opposition throw and tries conceded per game. They were only turned over once on their own throw and conceded less than one try per game.
Their basics were rock solid, which doesn’t give the opposition much to live off in terms of pressure, territory and points. They clearly targeted the aerial battle as something they were confident of winning and they definitely won the exchanges there.
It’s no surprise really because it is another aspect of Rassie’s coaching that he focused on while he was here in Munster as a coach and brought Felix Jones under his wing, a player who based his own game on work-rate around the pitch and covering every blade of grass in the backfield but also winning the aerial contest.
Even when England managed to put together some flowing attacking moves South Africa weren’t willing to give up enough ground for England to cross the tryline. On a penalty advantage in the first half South Africa marched England from their own tryline back to the 22 before they kicked the penalty for three points.
The pride and effort they showed in keeping England out at all costs is the culture that they created under Rassie and Jacques Nienabar. Jacques brought a real personality to Munster’s defence when he was in charge in Limerick and treated the one-to-one contest as a personal battle that you really don’t want to lose to your opposite number. That’s the kind of attitude that was evident on Saturday.
Tactically, South Africa did change things up from the start of the match. They threw 30 or so more passes than in their semi-final against Wales and kicked the ball less. That doesn’t mean they didn’t control the game when they needed to but I don’t think England expected the likes of Damian de Allende to get the ball to Willie Le Roux on the edges.
Whenever the ball went wide it was very controlled. They didn’t get lost in a Barbarians style of rugby. If it didn’t work they tightened things up again and invariably Faf de Klerk would take control from Handre Pollard and transfer the pressure to England via the aerial battle once again. The game plan had a much better balance this time round but it is also much easier when you’ve a penalty advantage from a scrum.
Rassie has drilled this management and control into the Springboks. He has a way with managing a group. He managed Munster in its most difficult period to date with the passing of Axel Foley and he took it is his stride. He knew how to push certain buttons in the squad and draw on an emotional trigger when the time was right.
He took on the South African team when they were struggling to find any bit of form. From the way Siya Kolisi spoke in his post-match interview you could tell how much it meant to him and that he was thinking of much more than the game of rugby itself, it stood for a whole lot more which is commendable.
I dealt with Rassie when I was retiring too which wasn’t an easy thing to do but he touched on his own experience of retiring through injury to help me to come to terms with the inevitable decision in a way that allowed me to be comfortable and in control. I feel like I knew the man for a couple of years but in reality it was one short summer from start to finish.
You would sometimes forget the power of man management and what certain people have done for you along the way but the way South Africa have managed themselves throughout the World Cup has reminded me about the qualities of Johan Erasmus.
South Africa’s victory is about more than the man in charge but he allowed the squad to get the best out of everyone without focusing on himself. He’ll only be too happy to speak about Cheslin Kolbe, Siya Kolisi, bringing back Duane Vermeulen instead of speaking about himself, yet you have to create an environment that allows these guys to flourish, and that is exactly what he did.