Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. Picture: REUTERS
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. Picture: REUTERS

There won’t be many intact fingernails among South African rugby fans this morning — and that includes South African All Blacks fans, of whom there are more than a few as a result of the country’s troubled racial history.

The past weekend’s Rugby World Cup semifinals, in which defending champions New Zealand were comprehensively outplayed by a rampant England and the Springboks ground out a narrow win over Wales, were the first northern vs southern hemisphere semifinals in 20 years, and have set up a north-south final. That is a fitting reflection of the current state of international rugby union.

England under wily Australian-born coach Eddie Jones showed  that they are a formidable outfit, capable of both matching the Boks’ physicality and striking out wide with speed and precision.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup always promised to deliver more than its predecessor tournaments, with at least six nations in with a credible chance of taking the coveted Webb Ellis Cup. It has certainly delivered, since the start of the knockout stage in particular but also due to host Japan’s giant-killing performances against Ireland and Scotland during the pool stage.

What had the pundits intrigued in the build-up to the 2019 tournament was that, unlike almost all of the others since the first competition in 1987, not only were the All Blacks not the overwhelming favourites but nor were the southern hemisphere teams dominant. To date, southern hemisphere sides have won seven of the eight Rugby World Cups.

Yet as recently as August, the All Blacks, thus far the only three-times cup winners, were defeated 47-26 by the Wallabies, both a record margin and the Australian team’s highest score against New Zealand. Importantly, it was also the most points the All Blacks had conceded in a Test, and it meant the Springboks won the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship for the first time in a decade.

Equally significantly in a World Cup year, as a result of that heavy defeat the All Blacks also technically surrendered their number one ranking in world rugby — to 2019 Six Nations champions Wales. That Wales promptly lost heavily to England, handing the No 1 spot back to New Zealand within hours, serves only to emphasise that there was no clear favourite to win the World Cup when the teams started flying into Japan.

With Wales, a resurgent Ireland and England all ranked higher than SA and Australia going into the tournament, northern hemisphere rugby writers for once had reason to be cocky. And while Ireland may have disappointed in the end, even the most avid Springbok fan would have to admit that Sunday’s game against Wales could have gone either way. Gone are the days of southern hemisphere teams’ physical dominance being taken for granted.

England under wily Australian-born coach Eddie Jones showed on Saturday that they are a formidable outfit, capable of both matching the Boks’ physicality and striking out wide with speed and precision. SA’s head coach Rassie Erasmus, no slouch himself when it comes to strategy and adapting to the opponent of the day, will undoubtedly have a few tricks up his sleeve to unsettle the English playmakers. But, as in most finals, the difference between the two teams is likely to come down to their ability to play with precision. That is, make the fewest mistakes.

Whatever the outcome of Saturday’s final, it promises to be a bruising yet intriguing game of rugby, the outcome of which is by no means certain. There can be little doubt that the balance of power in world rugby has shifted closer to the centre. The semifinals of the last World Cup, played at Twickenham on October 31 2015, were an entirely southern hemisphere affair, with New Zealand eventually overcoming Australia in the final and SA beating Argentina into fourth place.

It is no doubt true that the northern hemisphere rugby-playing nations have benefited from the evolution of professionalism in the game, which has seen an increasing number of southern hemisphere players looking to boost their careers — and pension pots — by heading north. But even if our loss has been the north’s gain, world rugby is the better for it.