Rassie Erasmus said his players would leave the field after the World Cup final in Yokohama on Saturday with empty tanks, but he warned England to expect a tactical battle and not just the massively physical one for which they will have prepared.
As he promised at the beginning of the week, South Africa’s head coach made one change from the 23 who were involved in the semi-final against Wales on Sunday with Cheslin Kolbe replacing S’bu Nkosi on the right wing after recovering from an ankle injury.
It means he has kept the split of six forwards and two backs on the bench, leaving Frans Steyn – the one survivor in either side from the 2007 World Cup final between South Africa and England in Paris – covering a number of positions behind the scrum.
“Getting to this stage is not enough for this team,” said Erasmus, who took over at the beginning of last year when the Springboks were in disarray and confirmed that whatever happens on Saturday he will not be continuing as head coach. “We may not be the favourites, but the players will leave nothing in the tank. At the end of the day, all you can ask is that they leave nothing on the field. If you are beaten by the better team, that’s life.
“We were a bit nervous when we lost Cheslin before the semi-final. We have good cover there, but he is world-class as he has always shown when playing for us. He has that x-factor and with the way England defend it is something we will definitely need.”
When he took charge off the Springboks in March last year, they had lost 11 of their 25 Tests since the 2015 World Rugby but in his first media conference Erasmus vowed to turn them into serious contenders for this tournament. Did he, deep down, think they would reach the final?
“When you look at the resources in our game, I knew that if we got everything in order we could. We had reached rock bottom and that made everyone realise that we had to fix it. With everything we have available to us, there is no reason why we should not be a force in world rugby.
“We do not suddenly think we are a force again because it is a process. Yes we have reached a World Cup final, which is great and we will do our utmost to win it and we think we are in with a good chance and will give it a real go against England, but the big challenge is to be consistent. This can be a springboard for us and we must take it forward so that we stay in the top three in the world. The positivity must not get lost again.
“We have challenges in our country but rugby can, for a few minutes or, when we win a few hours, days or months even, get people forgetting about their disagreements. As we found when we won the World Cup in 1995 and 2007, you can fix a lot of things in that time. We need that and it gives us maximum motivation. We want to do it for our country.”
England are the favourites to win the trophy for the second time after the way in which they knocked out the holders New Zealand last week, a mixture of power and panache, but Erasmus said he expected a tight, hard‑fought 80 minutes.
“The debate over favourites is irrelevant,” he said. The dynamic of your environment is what counts. We have worked really hard and we are where we want to be. It is not about who is most up for the game because both teams will want it. I think it will come down to which team tactically handles the game the best. It will be a physical battle but with a lot of tactical stuff involved.”
The head coach won immediate praise when he made Siya Kolisi, who will win his 50th cap on Saturday, captain – the first black player to hold the position. “I was a bit naive in not anticipating the emotional reaction,” Erasmus said. “I picked Siya not to get the country behind us but because he was the best performing Super Rugby captain. It caught us both off guard and his game suffered a bit, but he has handled everything wonderfully.”
Erasmus is in his first World Cup while his opposite number Eddie Jones has been involved in four. “He is a brilliant coach and I had the privilege of working with him for a couple of weeks before the 2007 World Cup. He has a great work ethic, knows what he wants and he does not stop, a workaholic. He gets the best out of players and likes to keep opposition coaches busy by saying things while he remains on task. I can’t do that.”
Steyn said he was enjoying this week more than he did in the buildup to the 2007 final. “I was young then and thought there would be another opportunity. Now I know this is my last one and you have to make it count. You only have to look at 2007 to know what a final is about. We had beaten England in the group stage and they had problems in their camp, but they gave us a very close game. It is just about winning, not by how much.”