RWC 2023

Narrowest of margins: Brutal Boks find a way to edge Les Bleus in Paris quarterfinal thriller

Narrowest of margins: Brutal Boks find a way to edge Les Bleus in Paris quarterfinal thriller
South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth (left) celebrates with teammates RG Snyman (right) and Faf de Klerk after scoring a late try to help the Boks to victory in their Rugby World Cup 2023 quarterfinal against France ast Stade de France in Paris on 15 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Teresa Suarez)

The Springboks beat France 29-28 to set up a Rugby World Cup semifinal against England in Paris next week.

The Springboks are through to the World Cup semifinals thanks to mining a deep well of resolve that is impossible to coach. It comes from experience and a culture of never knowing when to quit. They simply found a way against all the odds.

Never have there been four better Rugby World Cup quarterfinals and this, the fourth and final one of an epic weekend, was the best.

brutal boks quarterfinal

Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa breaks to score his team’s first try. (Photo: Warren Little / Getty Images)

It was dramatic and heart-stopping, courageous and cruel. Spare a thought for France. In front of their home crowd they gave their all and could just as easily have won.

The game was always in the balance even to the final, desperate denouement when the home side had possession and tried to find a way through the belligerent green wall. France spilled the ball and that was that — Kurt-Lee Arendse kicked it dead and the Springboks lived to fight another day.

brutal boks quarterfinal

The Springboks celebrate victory at full-time. (Photo: Warren Little / Getty Images)

brutal boks quarterfinal

A dejected Antoine Dupont and Romain Taofifenua of France after their team’s defeat. (Photo: Hannah Peters / Getty Images)

England await at Stade de France next weekend in a repeat of the 2019 final.

The Boks scored four tries and came from six points down with 13 minutes to play, to win after being rocked back on to the ropes for much of the second half. They simply refused to fall and it was France whose confidence drained in those final, desperate minutes.

Heroic effort 

brutal boks quarterfinal

Referee Ben O’Keeffe (left) shows a yellow card to South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth (right). (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yoan Valat)

This was a match that started with haymakers and ended with nous and courage during a monumental defensive effort from the Boks. They made 155 tackles and survived a yellow card — their first of the tournament — for Eben Etzebeth just before halftime.

brutal boks quarterfinal

Matthieu Jalibert of France breaks through the tackle of Springbok Handre Pollard. (Photo: Hannah Peters / Getty Images)

They won the scrum contest, but struggled to stem France’s maul, while the defending world champions’ bench was perhaps the ultimate difference.

Ox Nche, Deon Fourie, RG Snyman, Kwagga Smith and Handré Pollard all made huge contributions after halftime.

But the starting XV were the real heroes as they weathered the worst of the French storm.

brutal boks quarterfinal

Jonathan Danty of France is tackled by Duane Vermeulen of South Africa. (Photo: Warren Little / Getty Images)

Jesse Kriel was immense, from his leading of the defence to his work rate, while Etzebeth and Bongi Mbonambi were otherworldly, as were so many others.

Peato Mauvaka, Cyril Baille and Uini Atonio, France’s formidable front row were colossal all night and Antoine Dupont, so brave playing 22 days after face surgery, was brilliant. This should not have been a quarterfinal.


The Springboks lost many little battles. There were several knock-ons at critical stages and some poor decision-making at others. At 25-19 down they won a scrum penalty inside France’s 22 and chose to go for a lineout. There were still 21 minutes to play.

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The Boks lost the lineout and France escaped without any damage. On such fine margins do matches and entire World Cup campaigns turn. But not this one.

They never stopped believing and in the 67th minute when they won another penalty inside France’s 22, they again opted against the shot at goal. Instead, they took a quick tap and four phases later Etzebeth scored. Pollard converted, and they led by a point.

brutal boks quarterfinal

Antoine Dupont of France kicks the ball past Cobus Reinach and Mbongeni Mbonambi of South Africa. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

Almost from the restart, they won another penalty inside their own half. Pollard stepped up and slotted it. That is the value of having him back in the squad. That four-point sliver of daylight was needed.

France fullback Thomas Ramos managed a 72nd-minute penalty and the game was there to be won and lost. The Boks used their experience to keep France pinned deep for much of the final eight excruciating minutes. They felt like years.

Fast start

This game blasted out of the blocks like an Olympic 100m final (which, incidentally, will take place at this very stadium in 10 months’ time) and the pace seldom relented. 

brutal boks quarterfinal

France’s Charles Ollivon (centre) is tackled by South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth (left). (Photo: EPA-EFE / Teresa Suarez)

France received the kick-off and the Boks almost won it, but in the next 120 seconds France, with the returning Dupont already flexing his brain, put in little dinks over the top that forced the Boks into scrambling their defence. 

Arendse just won the race back to stop Louis Bielle-Biarrey from scoring in the corner. It set the tone for the match. 

The teams shared six tries in the first half — with the home side edging the collisions and the battle in close contact, while the Boks ruled the air. 

Two of South Africa’s tries came directly from France’s failure to control well-placed up-and-unders by Manie Libbok. First, it was centre Gaël Fickou who knocked the ball into Arendse’s path. He collected and raced 30m unopposed to the line. 

brutal boks quarterfinal

France’s Charles Ollivon in action with Boks Damien de Allende and Kurt-Lee Arendse in pursuit. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Teresa Suarez)

The Boks’ second try was a fine build-up, but its final flourish came when lock Cameron Woki and flank Charles Ollivon failed to deal with a Libbok kick, allowing Damian de Allende to swoop.

On both occasions, Pieter-Steph du Toit, playing wide in the trams, made a nuisance of himself as well.

The Boks’ third try came from intense pressure on Dupont in midfield and his weak pass under pressure was pounced on by the Boks. The ball went wide to Kriel, who put in a sublime kick for Cheslin Kolbe to run on to. 

France scored from their first lineout of the game after Damian Willemse managed to charge down Damian Penaud’s attempted chip. But from the lineout Les Bleus came close. Two phases later Baille crashed over. 

Dupont, who played like he’d never been away, created his side’s second try with a quick tap penalty from close to the Boks’ line after a period of intense pressure. Mauvaka was on hand to finish after a deft pass from Penaud put him into the corner.

Baille scored France’s third after another set of raids close to the Bok line from a 5m lineout were initially repelled, but he eventually found a way over.

Ramos gave France the lead on halftime with Etzebeth being sin-binned for an unlucky head clash with Atonio.

The first 10 minutes of the second stanza were always going to be crucial and they became even more critical without Etzebeth in the middle.

France naturally upped the ante in this period and the Boks were forced to scramble on defence like never before. They just about held on.

This was the period the Boks won the match. France could have and should have pulled away. But belligerent and brutal defending won the moment and eventually won the day too. DM


France – Tries: Cyril Baille (2), Peato Mauvaka. Conversions: Thomas Ramos (2). Penalties: Ramos (3)

South Africa – Tries: Kurt-Lee Arendse, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, Eben Etzebeth. Conversions: Manie Libbok (2), Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Margaret Jensen says:

    Oh wow, what a match!!! Brilliant strategy despite the powerful defence of Les Bleus
    Great to watch but very ‘on the edge of my seat’

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Brilliant Boks!

    Just one niggling question: what is the strategic thinking behind Faf box kicking with 1.5 minutes remaining?

    • Andrew Horsfall says:

      Agreed that made no sense to me

    • A Green says:

      With only 1 point in the balance, I think exiting their half to remove the pressure of avoiding a penalty that France could use to the win match was the thinking. Besides, France struggled with contenstables all night. Small margins and so many moments that could have swayed the result the other way.

      • Johan Buys says:

        Yep, penalties happen easily, or if we knocked the ball keeping it among forwards…. so getting the ball away. But i’d have stressed less if the kick went further 😉

        Awesome game, I feel sorry for DuPont – probably the best rugby player of the tournament.

        England will not be a huge problem. Rest a few players and bring in Wiese, Moodie, Am, Esterhuizen, Van Staden, Kleyn, Nyakane, etc.

        Just PLEASE rest Willie for rest of the tournament!

        • Christopher Lang says:

          Yes! How in hell did Willie get selected for this important match? He has been a stalwart, but prone to fumbling the ball these days.

          • Sven Leisegang says:

            Willie still opens the backline in attack. There are always unseen passes and deft touches of the ball that go unnoticed.

            With the Faff kick, we needed to keep it contestable, as the chance of a knock-on or retention was there. That would have given us an easier ‘last minute’.

            With that, look at the French attack at us afterwards. Very slow, running on fumes. Our defence was rock solid when it mattered most.

    • Simon Fishley says:

      The 3 mauls preceding the box kick were all touch and go. The commentator (think it was Shimmy) even said the Boks need to be careful about sealing off, and we did exactly that at each one, leaving just enough doubt for the ref not to blow. The French players were pleading with the ref and I think they would have got him to blow the next one up, so Faf had to turn them around. It was risky but rather give them a penalty 20m into their own half than bang on halfway where you know Ramos would nail it.

  • Enver Klein says:

    In the photograph after “Fast start”, that’s not Matthieu Jalibert, it’s Charles Ollivon being tackled by Eben Etsebeth

  • Alan Thompson says:

    What was the thinking behind taking the scrum in our own 22 having called the mark? Worked out in the end but still don’t understand it.

    • jason du toit says:

      it was a power move. their front row was looking ragged and tired and we wanted to push them at that point. it was a slightly risky call, but the way the previous scrum had gone, it was a way of aserting dominance and further tiring out the french pack.

      south africa had a much stronger bench than france and so there was a lot of focus on tiring the french pack out to force on the replacements. unlike many other teams, the springboks don’t have a typical “bench”; they have a brutal set up matchwinners who come on later on in games to close them out. the boks have the deepest squad of all the teams at the world cup. we always knew the final 20 minutes or so would be where the dominanace of the boks would come. anything to make that 20 minutes be longer was part of the plan.

      • Christopher Lang says:

        Interesting and courageous call. I think Damien Willemse noticed that the Boks had scrummed France right off the ball only seconds earlier (Boks should have been awarded a penalty, in my opinion) which allowed Du Pont to kick the Gary Owen onto Willemse who took the mark. I think he knew the Boks could get a penalty by scrumming again, which they did….

        • jason du toit says:

          rassie said in this morning’s interview that it was planned that marks caught in our 22 were going to be taken as scrums. last time we played france there was only one scrum the entire game and we wanted to force more scrums.

          he said that a 22 drop would get france position on the 10m line and we would have to work really hard to win that posession back. so rather, we opted to go with scrums, which we had the confidence we could force into penalties. even without a scrum penalty, we could still kick the bacll out, with perhaps only slightly less field gained.

          he also pointed out that france never sent an up and under into our 22 again after that. well played, rassie.

          • Sven Leisegang says:

            Nice observations.

            I’ve got no recollection of a mark being scrummable. Great call at the time.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    FYI: not Jalibert being tackled by Etzebeth. Ollivon. Sorry. Had to mention it… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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