Rugby union is one of the most physically demanding sports on earth and it is of little surprise that the the teams who meet in this Saturday’s World Cup Final are two of the most physically imposing in the sport.
Despite the impact of Typhoon Hagibis which played havoc with some of the group fixtures (and perhaps dependent on your personal international rugby loyalties), it is difficult to say that the 2019 iteration of the Rugby World Cup hasn’t been a rousing success.
Host nation Japan have embraced the event wholeheartedly, with rugby appearing to grow exponentially in popularity over the course of the six-week tournament. But as the festival of rugby approaches its climax with Saturday’s final between England and South Africa, who among those teams are most equipped to come out on top of what will be an intensely bruising battle in Yokohama?
England’s appearance in the final marks the first time in competition history that a team which was eliminated in the group stages four years prior has advanced to a final, and this is a statistic that their coach Eddie Jones will no doubt be buoyed by.
Jones, who masterminded Japan’s impossible win against South Africa four years ago, was drafted in to right English rugby after they failed miserably under the stewardship of Stuart Lancaster as hosts in 2015.
Since then Jones has instilled a new physicality into English rugby, mixing brains and brawn to present a powerhouse team with no shortage of guile.
Itoje, 25, delivered an outstanding performance in England’s semi-final victory against New Zealand last weekend, thoroughly outworking former World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick and future All Blacks skipper Sam Whitelock in the engine room.
The 6ft 4in Saracens lock has been earmarked for greatness since he was a child. Last Saturday, he proved those prophesies correct. Itoje is an immensely imposing presence but also possessor of the the type of dark arts needed to navigate the lineout, scrum, ruck and maul aspects of the game.
Eddie Jones’ engine. England are an immeasurably different team when Vunipola isn’t in their number eight shirt but the injury-prone player has managed to steer clear of the types of knocks which have threatened to derail his career in the tournament up to this point.
Incredibly dangerous with ball in hand, the 285lb Vunipola is also a tireless worker in defence and has a sufficient amount of ballast necessary to break the gainline with every carry, while also acting as a brick wall when the opposition run at him.
Billy’s older brother has a slightly different but equally important role in the England boiler room. A loosehead prop, Mako’s role is a specialist one in that his game is almost entirely predicated on providing his team with a solid platform during the scrum.
While Billy will take part in phases across all areas of the pitch, Mako’s 270lb frame is used in much more singular terms such as short distance ball-carrying, tackling and set pieces – or basically, any aspect of the game which requires extreme brute force.
One of the babies of the group at just 23 years of age, Sam Underhill has emerged throughout this tournament as one of finest flankers in world rugby. His role, put simply, is to win back possession of the ball for his team by any (legal) means necessary.
Often this means putting his head into areas that most people wouldn’t consider putting a blacksmith’s anvil – and he is among the best in the world at doing just that.
This brings us to South Africa. A picture emerged before the tournament (see below) of the Springboks in training prior to the start of the World Cup and, well, to say that there physiques are impressive would be quite the understatement.
Rassie Erasmus’ team come from a tradition of ‘power rugby’. That is to say, the emphasis of their style of play often comes down to a simple philosophy of ‘we are bigger than you and we are going to show it’.
This maxim has permeated through the structure of South African rugby, with some players cast away from South African shores for being ‘too small’ and going on to have outstanding careers in other countries.
If your nickname is ‘The Beast’, odds are you are a pretty imposing opponent and this is certainly true of 116-times capped South African loosehead. While his career is approaching its end, the 34-year-old Mtawarira remains one of the most effective props in the game even if he has lost his place in the starting team to Steven Kitshoff.
His resume of destroying opposition scrums is about as impressive as anyone’s in world rugby and a final appearance Springboks appearance in the World Cup Final is a fitting send-off for the legendary big man.
Arguably the world’s best hooker, Marx is the perfect compliment to the Springboks style of play in that he is ruthless in their power run game as well as acting like a back-rower in the breakdown – two traits which aren’t necessarily usually associated with his position.
He also has the sort of physique and square jaw not often seen outside of a Stan Lee comic and displays a similar level of heroism, or a distinct lack of awareness of his own physical safety. Either way, an outstanding and incredibly physically imposing talent.
It is remarkable to consider that South African lock Etzebeth celebrates his 27th birthday in the days before Saturday’s final, given the incredible body of work he has displayed in his 84 caps thus far.
South Africa are known for producing outstanding locks and 6ft 8in giant Etzebeth firmly comes from the same assembly line which brought the world the imperious talents of Victor Matfield. Etzebeth’s battle with England’s Maro Itoje could help determine exactly where the Web Ellis Cup ends up after 80 minutes of action this weekend.
The first black man to ever captain South Africa and he is there on merit, not through the quota system previously used in Springbok rugby as the country attempted to get past the blight of apartheid.
Kolisi, 28, is capable of playing anywhere across the back row but has settled in South Africa’s Springboks’ six jersey, a position which makes the most of his breakdown and ball-carrying abilities.
Twenty-four years after Francois Pienaar lifted the 1995 World Cup alongside Nelson Mandela in a moment which unified people of varying ethnicities in South Africa, one can’t help but see the significance of Kolisi maybe doing the same a quarter of a century later.