Having played against England at this World Cup I am not remotely surprised to see them in the final. They have a squad – and a gameplan – with “world champions” written all over it. Their confidence must also be through the roof having dismantled the All Blacks in Yokohama. Eddie Jones’s men seem to be peaking at the right time and have built steadily throughout the tournament.
Love him or hate him, England’s coach has been in masterful form. His “humorous” comments before games are no accident: they are designed to galvanise his team and brace them for the challenge of everyone hating England. Before USA’s game with England, Jones described us as “a bunch of Donald Trumps” to highlight our supposed unpredictability. It certainly ruffled a few feathers in our camp but, come the game, it was England who ruffled us.
I do believe they turned a big corner when they played us in Kobe. A George Ford kicking masterclass illustrated the importance of playing in the right areas, proving the art of the kick can be as deadly a scoring weapon as a cut-out pass. Personally, having spent my evening trying to cover the back field, it felt like Ford was employing some kind of laser to locate space.
We also experienced the full ferocity of an England pack, intent on seeking dominance no matter where they are on the field.
Relentless is sometimes an overused word but England’s defence is like a special forces’ operation. You’re given little time to think and react. It comes at you constantly from all angles, with each player fully buying into their role. Even the mighty All Blacks looked stunned with the intensity of what was coming at them. Maro Itoje, then Courtney Lawes, then Sam Underhill, all rounded off with a no-nonsense Tom Curry and a final double whammy from the Vunipola brothers.
Then there is the attack. Wherever you defend, some other space will open up. England have always been known for their physicality and ball carriers but maybe Jones’s time with Japan has increased England’s desire to play quick. They were lightning fast in the opening period against New Zealand, very similar to the way they started against us. Ford and Farrell have the ball on a string and – whether they look to pass, run or kick – they are making good decisions.
Their teammates also seem to be growing in confidence. You have Anthony Watson back to his best, Elliot Daly proving why he is Jones’s rock at the back and then a bench to come on and lift the performance even more. That is what is so challenging when you come up against England. They have 31 top‑class players all contributing to a well-oiled, red-rose machine.
The final against South Africa, even so, will be a challenge. Power meets power, physicality meets physicality. No doubt it will be a very different game to last weekend’s. As reflected by Jones’s pre-game statements, however, England will again have a plan to ruffle feathers. I think England will look to continue with their quick-speed-of-ball approach, rather than trying to win the aerial game straight away. It will be all about not allowing the Springboks’ big forwards to settle. Kicking-wise, I’m sure they will look to do the same as they did to us: turn the wings, make sure there is a quality kick-chase and put the back three in uncomfortable places.
The South Africa half‑backs Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk are a world-class duo so England will also be aware of the importance of shutting them down. On the flip side, South Africa will undoubtedly put Ben Youngs and Ford (if picked) under huge pressure. I believe Ford is so pivotal to England’s performance he could be the reason England win the World Cup.
England’s forwards need to set the platform but the Leicester fly-half is in cruise control at the moment. His ability to suck in defenders and then put a pin-point kick into space has been superior to every other No 10 at this World Cup.
Come 9am on Saturday the whole of England will be packed into pubs, rugby clubs or their living rooms at home, anxiously hoping to see another Webb Ellis Cup come back home.
South Africa have been formidable and pose Jones his greatest challenge. However, I feel he has a plan, as he had for us in Kobe. England’s intensity and confidence can also carry them over the line. As someone born in England I’d like to tell the grandchildren one day that I played against a great England side who went on to conquer the world.