Stade de France semifinal showdown: It’s about the here and now as Boks face unbeaten England
South Africa’s glorious history at the French stadium bodes well for another victory over the English – but England head coach Steve Borthwick remains confident.
England are the next challenge for South Africa in tonight’s Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023 semifinal at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. It’s a venue that has seen significant moments between these countries – none of them good for England.
In 1999, Jannie de Beer went berserk and landed five drop goals against England in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The Boks won 44-21.
In 2007, a superlative first-half performance from the Boks, inspired by the genius of Fourie du Preez and the dominance of a seminal pack of forwards, thrashed England 36-0 in a Pool match.
A few weeks later they were back at the stadium for the final. Somehow England had clawed their way to the end. The match itself was not a classic, with the Boks keeping England at arm’s-length to win 15-6 for their second world title.
All those matches were so long ago that few of the players involved on either side can remember much about them.
Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus can, though, as he played in 1999 and worked with the Boks before they left for France in 2007. England head coach Steve Borthwick was a player in the squad in 2007.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023 News Hub
Here and now
But it’s really about the here and now. There are exceptional players on both sides. England have won five matches in a row and are the only unbeaten team at the tournament.
Whether the opposition they’ve beaten has been of the same quality the Boks faced will be revealed around 11pm this evening.
There is no sense that their back division has enough attacking cohesion to really frighten the Boks’ rush defence. Jesse Kriel has been exceptional in marshalling the defence at the tournament and emerged as one of the real unsung heroes of the side.
Another shift like the one he put in against France last week, which played a huge role in the Boks’ 29-28 quarterfinal win, and it’s unlikely to end well for England.
The Boks have been averaging 4.8 tries per game in their most recent 13 Tests, of which they have won 11. They are a different team with different weapons and can hurt England in multiple ways.
If England try to reduce the number of scrums, as France did, the Boks can adapt. Against France, they took to the air with Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit stationed in the tramlines to create chaos for the French receivers. The Boks scored two tries as France fumbled under the pressure.
England have selected Freddie Steward at fullback to help to combat this tactic. He is tall and robust, but it’s unlikely to be just Kurt-Lee Arendse or Cheslin Kolbe he’s fighting off. There will be a few monsters as well.
“The thing about Freddie is that everybody knows how good he is in the air and everybody knows what a fantastic player he is in general,” said England captain Owen Farrell.
“But it’s the ‘want’ to do it, the want to be in those battles … He’s one of the best in the world at it.”
We’ll find out.
The Boks haven’t yet fully employed their line-out maul and they’ve kept first-phase attacking plays to a minimum. Might we see them unleashing some smart plays, with Manie Libbok orchestrating some attacking moves?
England have beaten what was in front of them mostly by hoofing the ball. At RWC 2023 they have kicked the most, averaging 33 kicks per game, and they have retained possession from those kicks 20% of the time, which is also a tournament high. It’s unlikely they will or can change now.
The tactic has been effective up to a point, but have they met a team of the quality of the Boks at RWC 2023?
Kicking on the Springbok back three of Damian Willemse, Arendse and Kolbe comes with huge risk.
Last week, Kolbe ran back at Les Bleus several times and caused mild panic in their defence as he bounced and dipped between beefy forwards.
France are a much more organised team than England, and Kolbe will fancy his chances in broken play if England feed him the ball with enough space to scan and attack.
Given England’s recent disciplinary issues, especially related to high tackles, a Kolbe or Arendse bobbing and weaving into their defence does raise the chances of someone connecting the Bok wingers high.
Where do England have an advantage over the Boks? It’s hard to say. They certainly have nothing to lose. They have a decent pack of forwards and in Ben Earl they have a marauding No 8 who can get over the gain line.
But will that be enough against a Bok team that plays at such high intensity that they smother opponents with their defence? If they can maintain that energy, nothing England have done in the Borthwick era suggests they can beat the Boks.
Borthwick, though, remained optimistic about an upset: “There is always belief that is strong in this team. There are players that have performed at the very highest levels. They can’t wait for this,” he said this week.
“[The Springboks present] a great deal of challenges, as you would expect from the number one side in the world. They’ve got that traditional set-piece power that they’ve had for a long time.
“Their contestable kicking game is another great strength. One thing they’ve layered to their game over these last four years has been their ball movement and the speed they have on the edges.
“They also have a squad that is jam-packed full of power and size.
“We’ve got a pretty strong team as well. We’ve got a pretty strong bench.” DM
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 (captain), 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
15 Freddie Steward, 14 Jonny May, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell (captain), 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Ben Earl, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 George Martin, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Joe Marler
Reserves: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ollie Chessum, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Ollie Lawrence
Kickoff: 9pm (SA time)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.