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