ON the surface, today’s World Cup pool clash between England and South Africa looks remarkably similar to their 2003 meeting. In reality four years have seen an astonishing 180 degree shift in expectations.
As in 2003 the
teams meet in the second game of their pool with the dangerous Samoans again in the group.
The winners at the Stade de France will go on to a probable quarter-final against Wales and a possible semi against France, exactly the route England took to the final in 2003.
For the losers there is the prospect of a quarter-final against Australia, with the All Blacks waiting in the semis.
South Africa were forced to take that “low road” in reverse order four years ago and went out at the hands of New Zealand in the last eight.
This time South Africa go into Friday’s game looking for a fourth successive English scalp and as remarkable 1-9 ON favourites with the defending champions hoping for a sporting miracle, the complete reverse of 2003.
Then, England arrived in Perth as the world’s top-ranked team on the back of an unprecedented 10-game winning streak against southern hemisphere countries.
That run included four victories in a row over South Africa, including a 53-3 humbling in a violent Twickenham clash 11 months earlier. Coach Clive Woodward and his experienced squad oozed confidence and knew that the World Cup was theirs for the taking.
The situation was very different for South Africa who, not for the first time, were beset by internal strife and had lost three of their four Tri-Nations games.
The details of the infamous Camp Barbed Wire were yet to become fully public but rumours were spreading that the players had been through something pretty unusual in a desperate attempt to heal the rifts.
Both teams got off to impressive starts, South Africa hammering Uruguay 72-6 and England thrashing Georgia 84-6.
Both could then turn their attention to the main event, and the tension was almost palpable.
England’s confidence was built on solid foundations but the Springboks, who had lost only once in their only two previous World Cup appearances, were forced to rely on pride in the jersey.
“I know we can win it, I just feel it,” said Springbok captain Joost van der Westhuizen, when all logic indicated otherwise.
History is usually written by the victors and it has been kind to England in the wake of their subsequent Sydney glory. But it could easily have turned out very differently that night at the Subiaco Oval.
The Springboks came out full of aggression and knocked a confused England out of their stride. They should have had a healthy lead at halftime but four missed penalties by flyhalf Louis Koen were to prove costly as they turned round level at 6-6.
A charge down try for centre Will Greenwood after an hour finally eased the pressure and England settled, scoring 19 unanswered second-half points for a 25-3 win that set them on their way to Sydney.
Three players from each side’s starting team in 2003 will run out on Friday, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Juan Smith for South Africa and Jason Robinson, Josh Lewsey and Ben Kay for England. — Reuters.