- 16 Oct 07, 10:42 AM
You can’t predict with any certainty what will happen in sport. That’s why we play it. That’s why we watch it.
And if you could, you wouldn’t share it with the millions of readers who have visited this website in the last few weeks.
Most people don’t bet on sport for that very reason. Others don’t bet on sport because, however hard they try, their hearts rule their heads. Fans are not so much analytical, as anatomical. One-eyed supporters would rather cut off their right arms than bet against their own team.
Journalists too wouldn’t be human if their assessment was entirely unclouded either by patriotism or the needs of the market they serve. But I still can’t make out a case for saying that England should win the World Cup.
South Africa have the better individual players. If you made up a composite side from the two teams, the Springbok representation might be only marginally higher than England’s, if you picked a world XV from this tournament, South Africa would have an overwhelming majority.
Like England, they have an intelligent and articulate coach, Jake White, and a respected and inspirational captain, John Smit. Unlike England, this team has been four years in the making – longer if you count the time many of the Springboks spent with Jake White in the under 21 set-up - and has a settled and experienced look to it.
Brian Ashton by contrast has been in charge of England for just 10 months, and openly admits that he still hadn’t decided on his best line-up when the tournament started.
That process was still going on when this South African side thrashed this England side by 36 points to nil - the worst ever World Cup defeat for any England side.
Of course it is possible to argue that that was four weeks ago, and that if a week is a long time in politics, it can be close to an eternity in sport, but it is equally impossible to deny that the cornerstones of the Boks' success that day are still in place nor that the return of former International Player of the Year, Schalk Burger, is anything but a considerable bonus.
Fourie du Preez has few rivals as the world’s best scrum-half, locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha are acknowledged as the best line-out combination in the game, while, as the semi-final destruction of Argentina demonstrated, Bryan Habana is the most deadly finisher in the world, and Percy Montgomery has a place-kicking success rate that Jonny Wilkinson can only envy.
But Wilkinson, as he showed in both the quarter-final against Australia and the semi-final against France, kicks the points when they matter most, while it is impossible to quantify the effect he has on the players around him. They know that if they can keep the game close, reduce it to a sudden-death shoot-out, they have on their side the greatest gun-slinger the world of rugby has ever seen.
Is it enough? Australia (because their forwards were blown away at the set-piece) and France (following the misguided notion of an eccentric coach) got sucked into a war of attrition in which their chances of success were greatly reduced.
As a journalist, I believe that South Africa won’t make the same mistake. As an Englishman, I hope they do. Either way, I’m not putting any money on it.
Alastair Hignell is a former England rugby international who commentates on rugby union for Radio 5 Live. He is covering England at the World Cup. 5 Live's full broadcast schedule is here.