JP Pietersen scored in the second minute, after charging down scrumhalf Morgan Parra’s kick, to give the Springboks the good start they had been banging on about in the build-up to the game, and two penalties by Morne Steyn put South Africa in firm control on the scoreboard as well as they led 13-0 going into the final minute of the first half.
They conceded a rather soft try from the kick-off though, which meant they had to suffer a fraught second half in which they had two tries disallowed by the TMO and were forced to defend for long periods.
But defensive excellence was central to their 19-10 triumph as their kicking game was made brilliant by superb chasing, they dominated the collisions thanks to a magnificent effort by the tight five and loose trio, and the outside-in rush defence worked because the men on the outside could trust those on the inside to do the hard work and get across to cover the gaps.
One can only wonder if Duane Vermeulen and Willem Alberts ever know what it’s like to take a backwards step as they were immense in driving back French forwards that are amongst the strongest and most physical in the game, and they were fired up by playing in front of 83,000 passionate supporters at the Stade de France.
“The Springboks were just so physically strong in preventing us from getting anything going from the rucks that we were just unable to play and to make an impression, and that was where they won this game tonight,” French captain Thierry Dusautoir said after the game.
The French must have felt mugged by Pietersen’s early try because just moments before they had been pressuring the Springboks inside their own 22 from the opening kick-off. But whereas Francois Louw controlled the ball and Ruan Pienaar cleared their lines, the home side responded to a Morne Steyn penalty by keeping the ball in touch well, but Yoann Huget’s flick inside put Parra under pressure and he never saw Pietersen coming as his kick was charged down and rolled into the in-goal area for the wing to comfortably touch down.
The Springboks were able to call on the educated boots of Pienaar, Steyn and fullback Willie le Roux as they thoroughly dominated the kicking battle and, as a result, territory.
Instead of trying to emulate the visitors by playing the territory game on another awful pitch that made running rugby a hazardous affair, France stupidly tried to run the ball back at the Springboks from their own half. Unable to breach the gain line, their error rate rose and that gave the sharpshooting Steyn opportunities to stretch the lead.
Wonderfully composed when going for goal – he had a 100% record with a conversion and three penalties – and highly effective when kicking in open play, Steyn justified his return at flyhalf and showed he is a master of all conditions, even such lousy ones as at the Stade de France.
And Le Roux was also a revelation at fullback in terms of how well he kicked and there was a period in the second half when he single-handedly drove France back with several kicks, leading to a Steyn penalty.
That penalty came after a massive scrum by the Springboks and Coenie Oosthuizen, in his first start at tighthead, will feel that he has a future in the number three jersey after acquitting himself well.
The Springboks will be satisfied with their scrummaging against the mighty French pack – they were under pressure early on but grew steadily stronger – but they will be concerned by how their lineout disintegrated late in the game for the second week in a row.
Flip van der Merwe was the dominant catcher for them early on, but the Springboks were not helped by Eben Etzebeth leaving the field after just 15 minutes with an ankle injury, no doubt rolled on the dreadful surface.
Bakkies Botha may not have single-handedly torn the French apart by their limbs, but the veteran was a solid contributor to the wonderful effort by the tight five in the collisions and he also took all four of the lineout balls thrown to him.
Louw’s brilliance at the rucks denies the opposition quick ball a lot of the time, although the openside flank’s ill-discipline is becoming a serious concern. The yellow card he was shown in the 73rd minute, when the result was still in the balance, was his second in successive weeks and the referee was quite right to sin-bin him for churlishly shoving his hands in the face of Pascal Pape.
The French lock had slapped Jean de Villiers on the back of the head at the bottom of the ruck, but the reaction from Louw was the sort of impetuous violence that gives the Springboks the dirty reputation they are desperately trying to shake off.
The time has surely come for Heyneke Meyer to stop talking about the lack of tolerance he has for ill-discipline and actually take visible action.
Of course the old double standards that South Africans moan about were also in evidence. No charges have been brought against replacement lock Sebastien Vahaamahina for punching Van der Merwe four minutes later, but he was at least penalised shortly afterwards when he rushed offsides to play Pienaar before the ball had come out of the ruck.
It gave Pat Lambie the chance to convert a clutch penalty that made the game safe at 19-10.
Replacement prop Rabah Slimani was also just penalised for leading with his elbow into Jaque Fourie’s face, an offence which Bismarck du Plessis was yellow-carded for against the All Blacks, leading to his infamous red card in Auckland.
While the French certainly aren’t priests of fair play, they can also feel hard done by for the yellow card shown to replacement loosehead Thomas Domingo for what was no more than a late tackle on Bryan Habana, although the wing did his best to make it look like a tip tackle.
But the Springboks were justified in having the biggest moans as tries by both Fourie and Louw were disallowed in the 43rd and 51st minutes and ultimately turned what should have been a no-contest into a tight finish.
The first poor call by TMO Ian Ramage came after South Africa had won a heel against the head at the scrum and Vermeulen charged the ball up before Pienaar’s pass went through Steyn’s hands. De Villiers picked up the ball on the bounce and put Fourie through, but Ramage ruled Steyn had knocked-on despite no evidence to support this.
And then Le Roux dabbed through a grubber, which was kicked back over their own tryline by a French boot. Louw pounced and seemed to have dotted down, but again Ramage ruled against the Springboks as Huget just snuck a finger on the ball. But he just brushed the loose ball, pushing it sideways, and did not apply downward pressure.
And before I get shouted at that the law does not mention “downward pressure” in order to ground the ball, let’s look at Law 22.1 – sub-section (a) says if the player is holding the ball, then no downward pressure is necessary; but sub-section (b) indicates that if the ball is lying on the ground in-goal, then the player has to press down on it.
Ramage was more willing to give France a 50/50 try in the final minute of the first half, when Huget, two Springbok defenders and the touchline were all congregated together.
But the visitors could ultimately blame themselves for that try as their pack failed to control the kick-off properly, it popped out loose and was picked up by Pape, who offloaded to Parra, whose slick pass out to Huget gave him just enough time and space to squeeze over.
So the Springboks had plenty of challenges to overcome on Saturday night – a few of their own making, but TMOs, a poor pitch and freezing weather are obviously beyond their control.
But they had control of the important things: the gain-line, territory and the scoreboard; and therefore it always felt like they had control of the match.
It brings to an end a year in which South Africa have won 10 Tests out of 12, losing only to the All Blacks. By most measures, they have had a good year and are clearly growing in strength and character. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Jaque Fourie scores a try against France during their rugby test match at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis near Paris, November 23, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
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