Rugby World Cup: England and South Africa find their own motivations but favouritism lies with Boks

At the start of this World Cup, you would have been given long odds on England being the only unbeaten team at the semi-final stage.

It was only eight weeks ago that England fell to their first defeat to a current tier two nation after Fiji had run riot at Twickenham, on the back of previous warm-up defeats by Ireland and Wales. A kind draw - Argentina, Japan, Samoa and Chile put up little resistance in a weak Pool D - has facilitated their march into the last four but they have also emerged from every challenge thrown at them – including a rematch with dangerous Fiji in the previous round – and in the process developed the vital ability to dig out victory when faced by adversity. Remarkably given the strength of Ireland and France, they are the last remaining Six Nations representative.

All this makes it even more commendable that they stand two games away from winning the World Cup - although the sternest of tests awaits them on Saturday night at the Stade de France against defending champions South Africa.

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This is a repeat of the final four years ago in Yokohama, when England were arguably in a much better place. A week after demolishing New Zealand in sensational fashion, Eddie Jones' men were overpowered by the Springboks and contributed to their own downfall by making a series of errors. England did not fire a shot and endured a harrowing evening at the scrum.

Eight members of that team remain in 2023. Maro Itoje, their inspirational second row, is one of them. “South Africa are a good team, but so are we," he said. “I believe there is still a huge amount of growth to come from this team and I feel we haven’t seen the best of us yet. These are special games and you don’t get many opportunities like this. It’s about us seizing the moment, being really present and taking any opportunities we get.”

On the eve of the match, defence coach Kevin Sinfield demanded England’s players empty the tanks. “I am certainly not overwhelmed. I understand the challenge in front of us,” the English rugby league great said. “But I don’t mind being backed into a corner, don’t mind being written off, don’t mind being slammed, don’t mind being in the thick of a pretty tough circumstance. I just think that we’re in a World Cup semi-final, there is a lot of good in us, there are a lot of things to be excited about.

“Coming up against South Africa will let us know where we’re at. But for our players, they are so excited to be out there. Rewind eight weeks to the end of August and it was pretty grim for us, but we want them to absolutely rip into it on Saturday night. We want them to give everything they’ve got, otherwise you end up with a load of regrets for the rest of your life. We are really looking forward to this – we are coming up against the best team in the world at the weekend.”

Given the way England are talking this week, they will not die wondering in Paris. They have a core of players capable of making dents on South Africa in different ways and several are in ‘last dance’ territory, knowing this could be their last appearance in a Red Rose jersey, providing additional inspiration. But the Springboks are overwhelming favourites, with bookmakers giving Borthwick’s men only a puncher’s chance. How much Sunday’s epic victory over France has taken out of them will only become clear come kick off but they are one of the great South Africa sides who are playing for a nation beset by challenges, as vocalised by skipper Siya Kolisi – “we’re a purpose-driven team, not a trophy-driven team”.

The Boks are led by a wily operator in Rassie Erasmus, a master disruptor who attempts to unsettle opponents and officials through the use of mind games or by coming up with unusual innovations to give his team an edge. Opting for a scrum when a mark was called against France in the quarter-finals is an example of the latter, while his use of social media – most notoriously during the 2021 Lions tour – is frequently controversial. Warren Gatland knows from his sparring with Erasmus when he was Lions coach two years ago of the danger of allowing him to “control the agenda” because of his skill at the “dark arts”.

Erasmus expects the underdogs to have “beef” after they were flattened 32-12 four years ago. While not the most powerful source of their motivation for Saturday, revenge would be sweet. Of the survivors from that final, Dan Cole’s story is the most remarkable. When Kyle Sinckler was knocked out just three minutes into the final, Cole came on as his replacement and suffered a torrid time at the scrum until Joe Marler took over at loosehead early the third quarter, steadying the set piece. Leicester’s veteran tighthead became the fall guy and was cast into the international wilderness with little hope of a reprieve. But the stars aligned when Borthwick took over in December and at 36-years-old the Test centurion has the opportunity to avenge that day against the Springboks by nullifying what England’s head coach views as the best scrum in the world.

South Africa have their own motivations. They were overlooked by many for the tournament - France and Ireland took favouritism - and Kolisi spoke earlier in the week about winning for the millions of people struggling back home. They have also had to deal with a death threat towards scrum-half Cobus Reinach, who was targeted on social media in the wake of his country’s 29-28 quarter-final victory over hosts France.

Scotland can testify just how strong this South Africa team after losing 18-3 to them on the opening weekend. One suspects England will do well to avoid a similar fate.

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