Boks show ice-cool temperament to set up repeat of 2019 final against England
The Springboks showed that they have grown in the past four years as they found a way to win despite losing many of the mini battles.
All four Rugby World Cup quarterfinals were decided in the final moments, with the winning teams showing the necessary guts and composure to close out the respective matches.
Argentina flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez rushed off the line in the dying stages of the quarter-final against Wales in Marseille on Saturday. The risk paid off when he intercepted a pass and raced away to score the game-winning try.
In the second playoff staged in Paris, the All Blacks withstood a 37-phase assault by Ireland — the best attacking team in the world — before Sam Whitelock produced the turnover that clinched a monumental result.
Fiji scored two late tries in Marseille on Sunday, and looked to be on course for an upset before England flyhalf Owen Farrell slotted a late drop goal to regain his side the advantage.
And last by certainly not least, the Boks held their nerve to beat France in the most intense and frantic match to date.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Narrowest of margins: Brutal Boks find a way to edge Les Bleus in Paris quarterfinal thriller
Losing the battles, winning the war
When France went in search of a match-winning penalty in the final minute of the game, the writing appeared to be on the wall.
France had the momentum, and playing in a World Cup quarterfinal in front of a partisan crowd at the Stade de France, they certainly had the psychological advantage. The stage appeared to be set for a late infringement by the Boks, yet another penalty goal by the unflappable Thomas Ramos, and a 19th consecutive win at home for France.
But the Boks remained watchful in that final passage of play, and never gave referee Ben O’Keeffe a reason to blow his whistle. When the opportunity to strike presented itself, the defence ripped the ball away, and then Kurt-Lee Arendse booted it off the park.
The Boks lost so many of the mini battles at Stade de France on Sunday, yet their ability to adapt to every setback and hang in there until the death proved decisive.
According to the official match stats, France enjoyed 63% of the territory and 59% of possession. They bullied the Boks at the collisions, with 82 carries beyond the gainline and 42 defenders beaten.
France controlled the game to the point where the Boks had only five lineouts, and thus a limited opportunity to unleash their powerful maul.
Finding a way to win
The raw data doesn’t tell the whole story, though. After conceding a line break, the Boks often scrambled back to win a turnover. France racked up more kick metres, but the Boks created two tries via contestable kicks and a third through Jesse Kriel’s well-weighted grubber.
Nobody will remember that France made 81% of their tackles in this match, only that the hosts failed to stop Damian de Allende from close range in the first half, and then a rampaging Eben Etzebeth in the second.
Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Boks. They conceded an early try, and towards the end of the first half, they conceded their first yellow card of the tournament when Etzebeth was sanctioned for a dangerous tackle.
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They failed to win the collisions and control the tempo, and for the most part, France denied them the opportunity to harness their set-piece strengths.
Yet the Boks still found a way to win.
For all the talk of the Boks being one-dimensional, they have shown plenty of variation over the course of the 2023 season, and certainly at this World Cup tournament in France. More recently, they’ve shown that they can prevail when their primary strengths have been neutralised by the opposition.
They nearly succeeded against Ireland in the group stage, and went one better against France in the recent quarterfinal. It’s a massively encouraging sign as the semi-final against England looms.
Selections spot on
The coaches deserve credit for the manner in which they have managed their players in recent weeks, and for the selection of the team to play France.
While Ireland have fielded their first-string combination throughout their World Cup campaign, the Boks have rotated their squad. Ireland appeared to grow more fatigued as the quarterfinal battle with All Blacks progressed — and were especially blunt in that final passage of play.
By contrast, the Boks were at their best in the second stanza, and the quality of the decision-making at the death went a long way towards securing a massive result.
That speaks to the fitness of the players, as well as the selections and management of the bench. Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber got their selections and tactics spot on for this particular match.
Duane Vermeulen — picked ahead of Jasper Wiese at No 8 — proved massively influential at the breakdown and as a leader in the final moments. The coaches resisted the temptation to rush Lukhanyo Am back into the starting side and were rewarded when Kriel had his best game in the Bok No 13 jersey.
The call to start the attack-minded halfback pair of Cobus Reinach and Manie Libbok paid off, as the Boks touched down for three tries in the first half.
As predicted, the game was a lot tighter in the second stanza, and the coaches didn’t hesitate to deploy the more experienced combination of Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard, as well as another veteran in Willie le Roux, before the 50-minute mark.
De Klerk made a couple of key plays, including the final turnover that effectively ended the game. Pollard lived up to the hype when he came off the bench to slot a conversion as well as a 55m penalty goal, which allowed South Africa to take control as the contest raced towards a climax.
Super subs Deon Fourie and Kwagga Smith also provided the Boks with plenty of go-forward in the latter stages and secured several important turnovers at the breakdown.
England should not be underestimated
While the Boks were denied the opportunity to play to their strengths, they will take a lot out of the performance against France. They will carry a lot of psychological momentum into the semi-finals.
At the same time, they will know that they have a lot to fix ahead of next week’s match against England. They can’t allow England to control the flow of the game as France did this past Sunday.
England have been widely criticised over the past couple of seasons, for their poor results as well as their dour performances. At this tournament, however, they are the only team yet to lose a match, and are favouring a no-frills style that is well-suited to knockout rugby.
England underestimated the Boks ahead of the 2019 World Cup final. Four years later, the Boks should be wary of returning the favour.
The Boks cleared one of the biggest hurdles when they beat France this past weekend. They can’t afford to let complacency compromise their momentum now that the finish line is within sight. DM