South Africa look set to be celebrating once more come Saturday evening
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South Africa revel in mind games and winning the mental battle that always precedes the on-pitch war. More often than not, it eventually leads to victory once the final whistle has blown.
Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus particularly enjoys this arena, whether attempting to name England’s team on a Monday ahead of the weekend’s game, making pointed remarks about referees or taking to Twitter/X to defend his players against slights – both real and perceived.
So the context of this weekend’s Rugby World Cup semi-final against England provides an interesting challenge.
The Springboks head into the clash as overwhelming favourites – the objectively superior side who are more comfortable with their rugby identity and have spent the World Cup cycle steadily building towards the tournament with a clear vision and cohesive plan.
Meanwhile, England panickily changed coaches just nine months before the event, endured a catastrophic warm-up campaign and have been frantically searching for their optimal set-up over the past six weeks – albeit while doing just enough to keep marching on in France.
It leaves South Africa caught between something of a rock and a hard place in the mind games battle. They can’t admit they see themselves as the better team for fear of giving England ample bulletin board material but to try and play the underdog would be both disingenuous and barely believable.
The players have tried to find a middle ground by stating their respect for England, reminding the media that a team that reached the World Cup final four years ago can’t be taken lightly and insisting their focus is as strong as ever.
“I don’t think we’ve ever mentioned England as underdogs,” said hooker Bongi Mbonambi during Friday’s pre-match press conference. “I take it to be very disrespectful to them, to mention them as underdogs. We don’t look at ourselves as favourites. It’s going to be a tough game, it’s going to be a physical game.”
Skipper Siya Kolisi has played down the favourites tag worn by South Africa
Twenty-four hours earlier, Springboks skipper Siya Kolisi had rubbished the idea there was huge expectation on his team as outright favourites.
“Obviously we don’t see it that way because we know how good England are, how they play in World Cups,” explained Kolisi. “The team has changed and we’ve seen how hard they work.
“It doesn’t matter who we are playing, we need to get through this game. In the World Cup, we have seen teams who are not in the top 10 beating teams in the top 10 so it would be silly to think like that. We know exactly what they are going to bring and the motivation they have.”
Whether the players genuinely believe the teams to be evenly matched is almost irrelevant – that’s the narrative being pushed. Erasmus again took to his favourite social media site to post a graphic showing the similarities between the matchday 23s selected for Saturday in terms of age, caps won, average weight and minutes played at this World Cup
To almost all neutral observers however, there looks set to be only one winner of the second semi-final and the expectation that England’s revenge mission for that 32-12 final defeat in Yokohama in 2019 will fall short. It will certainly take a performance far better than they have produced at this World Cup so far to spring the Stade de France upset.
The Springboks may not be underestimating their foe but once the mind games stop, England might simply lack the ammunition to wound the favourites in the on-pitch battle.
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