Pollard and Ox deliver the marginal differences that allow Boks to fight another day
The Springbok bench with flyhalf Handre Pollard and prop Ox Nche in the vanguard tipped the scales for a 16-15 victory over England in the semifinal of Rugby World Cup 2023.
If there is one theme the Springboks management and players have kept reiterating throughout their French campaign, is that it’s a squad effort. All 35 players – including the injured Malcolm Marx and Makazole Mapimpi – contribute in ways that aren’t always obvious.
Late on Saturday night, in the swirling misty rain over Stade de France, the concept of the squad was at its most important.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard and loosehead Ox Nche delivered defining performances when the outcome started to look hopeless. So did the rest of the bench – RG Snyman, Vincent Koch, Kwagga Smith, Deon Fourie, Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux.
They all injected something – power, finesse, mongrel and calm – in the literal and metaphorical Parisian storm provided by the weather and worthy opponents.
The Boks won several late scrum penalties with replacement loosehead Nche giving England replacement Kyle Sinckler a particularly torrid time.
Nche’s arrival coupled with England’s withdrawal of Joe Marler for Sinckler was defining. Sinckler could not cope with the 1.75m Nche, who burrowed into his opposite number and destroyed him in the final quarter.
“We just looked like we weren’t in sync in the first half, but the message at halftime was that we had one objective and one mission and we came right.
“Our plan was ‘to get to know the guy across from you’ and I have studied Kyle. I can’t really explain how I got the better of him, it was the dark arts,” Nche said, with a glint in his eye.
It was a scrum penalty that led to the defining kick of the match.
For Pollard, who landed a conversion to Snyman’s 69th-minute try and two penalties, including the 77th-minute winning kick from 49 metres in the testing conditions, it was all part of the job.
“I felt good standing over the ball. Leading up to the last few minutes of the game I knew it was going to come down to something like that,” Pollard said.
“When we got that scrum I knew there was a good chance of a penalty. England got pinged there – our scrum was unreal tonight and definitely saved us.”
Despite the treacherous conditions, which had calmed slightly by the end of the match, it was no easy kick.
But Pollard, who landed the semifinal winning penalty against Wales in Japan in 2019 at almost the exact same stage in the game, trusted his processes and years of training.
The greatest embrace the moment to win these massive contests, and Pollard was excited, not cowed by the pressure.
“It is what you want as a player on this stage, to have moments like that as a flyhalf is what you live for. It was fun,” Pollard said.
“The wind wasn’t really a factor by then, if anything it was coming off my right shoulder and helping a little. But there was this misty rain and it was slippery so it’s hard to kick it perfectly, but it came off the boot well.
“There is so much adrenaline going through your body at that stage, you just have to stay in the moment. Not much went through my mind really, I just trusted the process.”
The reward is a final against New Zealand next weekend. Both sides are going for a fourth world title.
Boks by the throat
England had the Boks by the throat and didn’t finish them off. South Africa have been down this road many times themselves in the past, particularly against the All Blacks. Tight games aren’t won in the first hour, they are settled in the final quarter.
While England have been praised for their performance, in some cases the hyperbole is staggering. The reality is they hoofed the ball into the air – 41 times – and the Boks struggled. England backed it up with good chase lines and physicality.
It wasn’t particularly sophisticated, and it certainly wasn’t revolutionary, but it worked well in the conditions. Until it didn’t.
When the Boks were doing the same thing in Japan four years ago, many in the English media claimed they were killing rugby. When the roles were reversed in Paris on Saturday night, England were somehow “magnificent” and “unlucky to lose”. It goes to show that beauty is really in the eye of the beholder.
England never once looked like scoring a try and their scrum crumbled in the defining final quarter. That was enough for a below-par Boks to edge a tight game and into a final against the All Blacks for the first time in the professional era.
The Bok starting XV struggled under England’s aerial assault and the Roses’ strong forward effort. The Boks were just a little flat after some brutally physical games against Ireland, Tonga and France. That’s all it takes at this level.
Coaches talk about the “one percenters”, and this was a classic example. England delivered their best 40 minutes of rugby in years, the Boks produced their worst. Yet South Africa hung on and won the day.
The introduction of flyhalf Pollard in the 31st minute for the out-of-sorts Manie Libbok was the first big coaching call of the night. Hooking a player so early in the game could be catastrophic in any other environment, but not this one because nothing and no one is greater than the team.
The Boks coaching staff removed almost the entire pack by the 52nd minute, including Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi. There was no sentiment, just ruthless adaptation during the game to attempt to find a way to eke out a win.
“The beauty of this group is we are open and honest, and because we have the right players, the players accept it,” coach Jacques Nienaber said in reference to Libbok’s subbing just past the half-hour mark.
“Sometimes things aren’t going your way. We did it with Bongi [Mbonambi] in 2018. We took him off. For that specific day he just was not on fire, but he started the next week again.
“The main thing is everything is for the team and they understand that. Players take it on the chin. It doesn’t mean he [Libbok] won’t start next week. We didn’t miss a kick at goal tonight, every single opportunity was utilised, with him and Handre [Pollard]. That is how it is. It is for South Africa, not for the individual, not for the ego.” DM