The 2007 Rugby World Cup finalists took two different paths to get to the championship match.
England and South Africa face off Saturday in a rematch of their pool-round showdown more than a month ago. In that meeting, the Springboks embarrassed the defending RWC champions with a 36-0 shutout, leaving many wondering if England would make it to the quarterfinals.
But being prideful defending champions is not something the English take lightly. Tempered by their lackluster play, they emerged out of the deep end of the pool and strode into the quarterfinals, where they found their form at the expense of Australia. England then made it to the semis for a classic rivals match against France, a team that had dispatched the all-mighty All Blacks of New Zealand. Les Bleus entered as home favorites, playing in the comfortable surroundings of the Stade de France, having won four out of the last five meetings with England. England, however, was unfazed by France's pedigree, and terriers that they are, the English sunk their teeth into the French and wouldn't let go until they had a stunning 14-9 upset.
South Africa, on the other hand, blew through the pool round and bounded into the quarters to face Fiji, a strong team that proved no match for the Springboks' speed. That win put South Africa on a collision course with RWC upstart Argentina. Although the Pumas played hard and strong throughout the tourney, they ran out of gas midway into their semis match, eventually losing 37-13.
In the resulting improbable Northern Hemisphere versus Southern Hemisphere matchup in the final, England has a chance to become the first team to repeat as champions. Forget the speed game of the Springboks and the scrum control and surgical play of England, this match might very well come down to a battle between the sure-footed kicks of Percy Montgomery (RSA) and Jonny Wilkinson (England).
Montgomery has clearly outpaced the pack with 93 points so far, 17 of which came in the semifinals victory over Argentina. Meantime, the battered and bruised Wilkinson holds the RWC historical points total, with 243.
Two other players worth watching
Jason Robinson, England Lured back into the fray of international play by coach Brian Ashton ahead of last year's Six Nations Tournament, the 33-year-old fullback has been a solid ball handler and a strong presence on the pitch throughout the tourney. With Josh Lewsey out of the finals with a torn hamstring, Robinson will be shouldering more of the load for England.
JP Pietersen, South Africa Pietersen is just one in the stable of thoroughbreds you'll see streaking downfield. However, with much of the attention going to stopping the bullet-train Bryan Habana, who's leading the tourney in tries with eight, look for Pietersen and his breakaway speed to play more of a factor in this match.
As a prelude to the final, the bronze match on Friday will see the Pumas of Argentina locking horns once more with Les Bleus of France. The two sides last met Sept. 7 in the opening Cup match that saw the Pumas famously upset host country France, setting the table for a tournament that has been chock full of upsets and surprises.
Who's going to win
Although the Springboks have the advantage of having blown out England in the pool round, England will come determined to prove it is not the same team, and the shutout loss proved the catalyst needed to propel it through to the finals. When the scrums, mauls, rucks, runs, tries and kicks are done and dusted, it will be England making history as the first team to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup as repeat champions.
Peter Lion is an ESPN.com rugby contributor and director for "Outside The Lines."