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‘When Eben Etzebeth comes on to the pitch, it’s not to talk’  – Boks and Les Bleus set for epic showdown

‘When Eben Etzebeth comes on to the pitch, it’s not to talk’  – Boks and Les Bleus set for epic showdown
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi says that while South Africa do play physically, the goal is not to bring the referee into it. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

The time for talking is nearly but not quite done, as France and the Springboks prepare to square off in what might be one of the most eagerly awaited Rugby World Cup quarterfinals in history.

The plot lines are drawn. The Boks have gone with a 5-3 bench, including Handré Pollard, Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk as backs in reserve. It’s hardly a surprise since Pollard was deemed fit to be in contention.

France have in turn selected skipper Antoine Dupont, just 20 days after undergoing facial surgery to have a metal plate inserted in his cheek after he fractured it playing against Namibia.

The Boks have preferred Duane Vermeulen over Jasper Wiese at No 8 and have decided to go with the attacking instincts of Cobus Reinach and Manie Libbok as their starting halfback combination.

France have omitted the dangerous Melvyn Jaminet from the bench, preferring to add the powerful Sekou Macalou, who can play flank and wing, among the reserves.

Both teams have hard buggers up front. It will be thunderous and subtle, intelligent and instinctive and wonderful and nerve-shredding all at once. 

In short, it has all the ingredients of a sporting epic that will leave one side bereft and another elated but spent. The victor will have to do it all over again a week later.

It was a brutally physical contest the last time the sides met, almost a year ago in Marseille. Pieter-Steph du Toit was red-carded, as was Dupont, albeit 50 minutes apart, while the clash was always on the edge.

France won 30-26, but it could’ve gone the other way just as easily. It’s likely to be a similarly tight encounter on Sunday night at the Stade de France.

“Violent is the right word,” France No 8 Charles Ollivon responded after a brief pause to reflect, after being asked about their last meeting 11 months ago. “We’re expecting the same kind of match. We know the South African style.

“They’re well prepared to make a physical mark on their opponents. They’ll stay true to themselves. If I know [Toulon teammate] Eben [Etzebeth], when he comes onto the pitch, it’s not to talk. Once they’re in the game, they just keep rolling out the steamroller. They’re not going to change. We’ll be ready.”

France vs South Africa preview

Antoine Dupont of France will be back on the field on Sunday, 15 October, to face the Springboks, despite having just undergone surgery after fracturing his cheekbone. (Photo: Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Brutal Boks

Bok skipper Siya Kolisi didn’t shy away from the perception that the Boks are brutal, but did add the caveat that the intention is always to be within the law.

It’s how they play. Forward dominance is what every team at this level strives to earn. Seldom does a side win with its pack beaten.

Given the stakes, would Kolisi be working extra hard to keep up communication with referee Ben O’Keeffe? Not really.

“We do play physically, we do play on the edge, but we train it over and over again to stay legal,” Kolisi said. “We train to tackle below the ball and in training, penalties are called for offside and all those kinds of things.

“Our training is like a match day and if you cause those penalties in training, then you obviously bring in the ref. Our goal is to not bring the ref into it.

“That’s why our technique is so important. But at the same time, you can’t go out there in fear. We can’t go out there in fear of doing something crazy. You have to live on the edge because that’s what our game is about. That’s who we are as the Springbok team. We play as hard as we can for 80 minutes. That’s rugby.

“People enjoy rugby because it’s brutal and creates opportunities for players with great footwork to show the beautiful side of rugby.

“Our forward pack is what we use to get go-forward ball. It has to be as brutal as it can so that our wings and our backs can do their thing. But I think the ref will be able to manage the game and obviously if we stay clear of anything naughty, we’ll be all right.”

Attacking mindset

Coach Jacques Nienaber’s selection with Reinach and Libbok starting at halfbacks, Damian Willemse at fullback and Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse on the wings shows attacking intent.

France kick the most. That back division might make Les Bleus think twice and possibly alter their tactics. Also, if the Boks return French kicks by running back, it increases the chances of head high tackles.

The Boks’ best bet in this match is to make a fast start, to apply scoreboard pressure in the first quarter and to put France and the crowd on the back foot early.

Libbok and Reinach are natural attackers, always looking to probe space and find holes. The pack will hopefully give the halfbacks a platform to work from to bring in their strike runners.

“With Manie, if you look at the way he drives the team, he is obviously on form. The difference in the games he has started for us at 10, I think it is like four tries to one, so we score points with Manie at 10,” Nienaber said.

“Manie is in form, playing good rugby. Cobus [Reinach] is in form, playing good rugby, so is Faf [de Klerk]. But just looking at what the French will bring, we feel this is the best option for us.”

The insurance of Pollard, De Klerk and Le Roux on the bench means the Boks could revert to their 2019 style in the final quarter if they are in a position to apply the squeeze.

Stats and damn lies

There are many statistical numbers flying about and in most categories the Boks are worse than France.

In all the teams in the top eight, France have the highest collision dominance relative to their carries (48%), while South Africa are ranked seventh (38%) out of those eight.

The Springboks have also lost the most scrums per game of this group for the second-worst success rate (81%), and rank only fifth for line-out success (89%). France, on the other hand, have the third-best scrum success (94%) and the second-best line out (91%).

Les Bleus are happy to play without the ball as well, more than 30 times per game on average, and they rank only fifth for carries (119.0 per game) as a result.

South Africa, meanwhile, have opted not to kick the ball away, doing so only 20.3 times per game in the group stage.

France have been better than South Africa when they have the ball. The French keep the ball alive better than anyone else, averaging the most offloads (11.8) and the second-most line breaks (10.5), while the Springboks have conceded the joint-most turnovers (17.0) and have the worst positive outcomes of any team (60%), which translates to four out of every 10 possessions ending in error.

It sounds like the Boks have no chance, reading that. But after the All Blacks, France played Uruguay, Namibia and a broken and disinterested Italy. The Boks faced Scotland, Ireland, Romania and a fired-up Tonga. Spot which team came via the more difficult route.

Which is why stats can be misleading.

Despite the higher quality of the Boks’ Pool phase opposition, they are third on the list of entries into the opposition 22-metre area at RWC 2023 – with 11 per game. It’s one the best metrics to measure a team’s attacking ability.

Considering they were in a tough Pool, it’s an impressive stat and they come away with 3.3 points per entry.

Crucially the Boks only allow 7.5 entries into their 22 per game and have the best concession rate of just 0.9 points per entry, against high-quality opponents in the Pool phase. France’s stats in this department are almost identical, but was the quality of their opponents equal?

As ever, it will be small margins in big moments that define the game. But those margins will come down to which team has the most front foot ball.

France vs South Africa preview

South Africa encountered a fired-up Tonga in their Pool match on 1 October 2023 at Stade Velodrome, in Marseille, France. (Photo: Sylvie Failletaz/RvS.Media/Getty Images)

Emotional

Away from the cold, hard facts, it will be emotional and tense. Players will have to find inner calm and clarity in the turmoil of intense pressure. It’s what they’ve all prepared for and perhaps the biggest deciding factor will be which team channels that nervous energy more positively.

“We’re always nervous before this kind of match. It would be a lie to say there’s no tension,” France coach Fabien Galthie said. “That’s what makes these moments so special. We try to make the most of these moments, live them well together, and move forward with pleasure, joy, happiness and determination.

“It is certainly the most important match [in his career], because it’s the next one. The past is just a memory. Our next match is against the world champions, who beat the Lions, a winning team.

“They’re [the Boks] a team that inspires us, that we’ve followed a lot. They talk a lot about nation, about uniting the country. We love how they carry the symbol of their country. I learnt a lot about their country and their culture over there. 

“Playing against them, in Paris, at Stade de France, in a World Cup quarterfinal, is magnificent; it’s wonderful. We’re well aware of that. For us, the challenge is simply to play rugby with pleasure, as a team and with ambition. We want to rise to this challenge as we always have.”

Bok prop Steven Kitshoff perhaps summed it up best.

“Every Test you need maximum performance and need to be 100% switched on,” he said. “This weekend is going to be an unbelievable atmosphere in the stadium.

“There are going to be big moments in the game that could swing either way. It’s about being mentally switched on and not letting those small moments cost you.

“You’re going to have to go to a dark place quite early in this game because of the physicality. It might get to a point where players haven’t been before and we will see on Sunday if both teams are prepared to go to that dark spot quite early.” DM

Teams:

France: 15-Thomas Ramos, 14-Damian Penaud, 13-Gael Fickou, 12-Jonathan Danty, 11-Louis Bielle-Biarrey, 10-Matthieu Jalibert, 9-Antoine Dupont (cap.), 8-Gregory Alldritt, 7-Charles Ollivon, 6-Anthony Jelonch, 5-Thibaud Flament, 4-Cameron Woki, 3-Uini Atonio, 2-Peato Mauvaka, 1-Cyril Baille.

Reserves: 16-Pierre Bourgarit, 17-Reda Wardi, 18-Dorian Aldegheri, 19-Romain Taofifenua, 20-Francois Cros, 21-Sekou Macalou, 22-Maxime Lucu, 23-Yoram Moefana

South Africa: 15-Damian Willemse, 14-Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13-Jesse Kriel, 12-Damian de Allende, 11-Cheslin Kolbe, 10-Manie Libbok, 9-Cobus Reinach, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6-Siya Kolisi (capt), 5-Franco Mostert, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Frans Malherbe, 2-Bongi Mbonambi, 1-Steven Kitshoff

Reserves: 16-Deon Fourie, 17-Ox Nche, 18-Vincent Koch, 19-RG Snyman, 20-Kwagga Smith, 21-Faf de Klerk, 22-Handré Pollard, 23-Willie le Roux.

Referee: Ben O’ Keeffe (New Zealand)

Kick-off: Sunday, 15 October, 9pm

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