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80 minutes from glory: Can South Africa upset favorite England?

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

After six weeks and 44 games, the Rugby World Cup boils down to 80 minutes between England and South Africa.

A new champion will be crowned in Yokohama on Saturday after England robbed the All Blacks of the chance to win a third consecutive title, the best performance seen in the World Cup so far.

South Africa, too, has been formidable throughout this tournament. Physically dominant and tactically savvy in the knockout stages, the Springboks’ opening defeat to New Zealand now seems a lifetime ago.

Armed with a muscular, bulldozing set of forwards, Rassie Erasmus’ side, which only last year was ranked an all-time low of seventh in the world, has forged a style of play that, if not pretty, is ruthlessly effective.

“If one understands where we’ve come from — being number six, seven or eight in the world — we’ve got certain challenges, and one of them was always to redeem ourselves and become a power again in world rugby,” Erasmus told reporters after his side ground out a 19-16 semifinal victory against Wales.

“I guess you can expect very much the same from us on Saturday.”

This year’s final is a repeat of 2007 when an unfancied England side had punched above its weight in defense of its first, and to this day only, World Cup title.

The Springboks won for a second time then, but over a decade on the two sides are more evenly matched having each won two of their last four meetings.

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England’s appetite

Former flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked England’s winning drop goal in 2003 and was in the side that lost the 2007 final to South Africa, has spent time as a consultant coach with England. He’s been encouraged with what he’s seen in Japan.

“My feeling of having been around the squad for a bit is that the guys are interested in their performance, not in the rewards or recognition at this stage,” Wilkinson told CNN Sport’s Christina Macfarlane following England’s victory over New Zealand.

“(In 2003) we had a lot of guys who knew it was going to be their swansong. You can sort of see them saying: ‘Would be nice to end on this, wouldn’t it?’

“These guys, they all appreciate this has got to be a stepping stone to something. You don’t walk off and go: ‘Shall I retire at 24, 21, because I’ve won the thing?’ You say no, this is something I use to go: ‘What’s next?'”

Between Argentina in the group stages, Australia in the quarterfinals, and New Zealand in the semis, England has proved itself to be adaptable in attack — combining power up front with pace in the backs — and, especially against New Zealand, aggressive in defense.

In Eddie Jones, England has one of canniest, most experienced coaches in the game who has transformed the side since it was dumped out of the World Cup on home soil in the group stages four years ago.

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When it comes to World Cups, Jones has pedigree. He was in charge of the Australian team that fell short to England in the 2003 final, acted as a consultant to the victorious Springboks side in 2007, and masterminded Japan’s stunning upset of South Africa in 2015.

A twist of circumstance now sees Jones come up against South Africa in Japan. Win, and his reputation as one of rugby’s greatest coaches will be secured.

“He has coached against so many teams that, come Monday morning, he knows exactly how we are going to beat the team on the weekend,” England fullback Elliot Daly told reporters.

“We all buy into that. It’s worked so far in the tournament and hopefully we can do it again come Saturday.”

Too close to call

Jones said that his players had been “taking to the onsens in droves” to recover in time for Saturday’s game, referring to the natural hot springs that are believed to have restorative minerals.

Owen Farrell and Jonny May both carried knocks against New Zealand but have been named in England’s starting 15. An injury to replacement scrum-half Willi Heinz, however, means Ben Spencer has been whisked onto a plane and is on the bench for the final.

South Africa is bolstered by the return of Cheslin Kolbe, the Sprinboks’ slippery winger and their most dangerous attacking player.

READ: South Africa edges past Wales to reach third Rugby World Cup final

“I think it’s going to be an incredibly tight match, potentially with very little in it,” former winger Bryan Habana, the Rugby World Cup’s joint-record try-scorer, told CNN Sport.

“I’d be happy with South Africa by eight because that means England would have to score twice at the end of the game and calm my nerves a little bit.”

Wilkinson concurs that it’s almost too close to call: “It’s a World Cup final. This South African team has shown they can beat absolutely anyone,” he said.

“They’ve just won the Rugby Championship. We’re all talking about what a great game (England had) against New Zealand, these guys won the Rugby Championship against New Zealand.”

Whatever the result, this final has the ingredients for a blazing encounter. Expect fireworks in Yokohama on Saturday.

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