Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Springboks march on in World Cup defence as les Bleus come up short

The Springboks’ excellent bench helped them to edge a thrilling quarter-final in Paris.

Rugby World Cup / YouTube

France 28

South Africa 29

WHEN RUGBY IS played at this level, amid an atmosphere that crackled as it did in Stade de France tonight, you can only sit and smile at the spectacle and the thrill of it.

As with the wondrous quarter-final here last night, there didn’t really deserve to be a loser but hosts France are out of their World Cup. The reigning champions, South Africa, edged this epic battle to advance into a semi-final against England back here next Saturday.

With a crowd of 79,486 unrelenting in the stands, the action on the pitch was equally without pause. This was rugby at 2X speed, with barely time to draw breath, never a moment to look away. This was pure, brilliant sport. It was also wild, with only a blocked-down French conversion between the sides.

The Springboks’ curious-looking matchday 23 selection, with real experience off the bench and some big calls in the starting XV, worked a charm as their 5/3 selection of replacements helped to carry them home in an absorbing final quarter. 

They lost plenty of collisions to a physical French team and conceded some stunning tries to a daring, incisive French attack but Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber’s men never lost their composure or their belief.

Their four tries came from a mixture of kick pressure, blistering pace, and brutal power from close-range, while they had a crucial dollop of nous in the second half as Handré Pollard and the rest of their tweaked Bomb Squad helped to guide them to victory.

Their scrum was a crucial weapon, to the extent that at one stage they even called for a scrum in their own 22 after marking the ball. That is set-piece confidence. The Boks had to survive a yellow card for lock Eben Etzebeth, conceding only three points in that period.

The brilliant Antoine Dupont and les Bleus had felt this would be their time to finally claim a World Cup for France, with this sensational crowd roaring them on, but the Boks proved that when it comes to Big Boy Rugby, no one does it quite like them.

cyril-baille-celebrate-after-scoring-a-try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There were thrills right from the off as Dupont reminded us all of his genius with back-to-back clever kicks, the first reclaimed by out-half Matthieu Jalibert and the second very nearly delivering a try for wing Louis Bielle-Biarrey in the second minute.

France were over for the first time very soon, with a barnstorming maul marching 20 metres to within touching distance of the line, from where Dupont and Damian Penaud’s short passes sent loosehead Cyril Baille over in the right corner. Fullback Thomas Ramos made it 7-0 in style off the tee.

There was another big chance for France in the left corner two minutes later but Etzebeth got a hand to the last pass and somehow knocked it backwards when a knock-on would have meant penalty try and yellow.

The Boks barely had time to draw breath and they were scoring down the other end. Scrum-half Cobus Reinach launched a contestable box kick, Gael Fickou couldn’t claim it and wing Kurt-Lee Arendse raced forward to scoop it up and finish with speed. Manie Libbok was on target for 7-7.

Ramos missed a long-range shot at goal before the Boks’ second try, which came from another contestable kick. This time, Libbok hung up a diagonal bomb, Cameron Woki juggled it and dropped it, Damian de Allende gathered and dummied to nearly burst home from 25 metres. He was cut down but just a couple of phases later, Reinach popped a short ball off to de Allende at the fringe of the ruck and he dove over.

France responded with class as a flowing attack brought them back into the Boks 22, where Dupont survived a titanic tussle for the ball with Boks captain Siya Kolisi, the South Africans went off their feet, Dupont quick-tapped and sent outstanding hooker Peato Mauvaka over in the right corner. The drama continued as Cheslin Kolbe somehow managed to block down Ramos’ conversion attempt with a blistering show of pace.

kurt-lee-arendse-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-cobus-reinach Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

And Kolbe was soon scorching away for his own score as pressure from Etzebeth forced a loose pass from Dupont that Baille tried to tap it on, only for the Boks to scoop up the scraps. Centre Jesse Kriel rolled a grubber kick down the left and Kolbe had the pace to burn onto it and finish.

But France didn’t trail for long. Two clever kicks into the right corner from Penaud and then Dupont piled the pressure back on the Boks, the second of them resulting in a close-range France lineout. Mauvaka powered around the forming maul to carry, lock Thibaud Flament went close, then Baille picked and jammed over for his second try.

Ramos converted that score and then added a penalty with the last act of the half, a kick which came after Etzebeth had been sin-binned for head-on-head contact in a tackle on Uini Atonio. It was sent for review and would remain yellow, but Ramos nudged France ahead at 22-19.

The game picked up where it left off upon the resumption, with the outstanding Mauvaka part of a chain of French offloads that created another chance in the Boks 22 only for Penaud to knock on.

With 45 minutes gone, the Boks sent on out-hald Pollard, Faf de Klerk and RG Snyman, with the rest of the bench apart from Vincent Kock following soon after as Deon Fourie replaced skipper Kolisi in the back row.

damian-de-allende-makes-a-break Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The French still had momentum but they turned the ball over on their next three visits to the Boks 22, all of which featured a thrilling build-up in which Mauvaka and Jalibert were particularly prominent.

The South Africans scrambled as hard as ever and held firm until Etzebeth returned from the bin, but then the pressure finally told in the 54th minute as referee Ben O’Keeffe pinged the Boks at scrum time and Ramos slotted the three from the right of the posts.

France now had a six-point advantage and the Boks needed a big play. Arendse delivered with an aerial win followed by sub back row Kwagga Smith battering through a couple of tackles, but Mauvaka and sub lock Romain Taofifenua produced a breakdown turnover in the shadow of the French posts.

The Boks came back again but knocked on with their next visit. That only allowed them to fire up their scrum for a penalty and kick into the left corner, but Charles Ollivon snaffled a scrappy Boks tap back. France cleared their lines.

The Boks came back once again. Just outside their own 22, they won penalty advantage at the scrum, from which Kriel broke out, offloaded to Pollard, who found de Allende, who kicked ahead, chased down Dupont and tackled him metres from his own line, then helped to force the turnover penalty.

South Africa tapped this time and after some muscular carries in the tight, Etzebeth smashed his way through two defenders to the right of the posts, with Pollard’s conversion edging them ahead at 26-25 with 13 minutes left.

charles-ollivon-is-tackled-by-faf-de-klerk Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Boks got a little more breathing room just two minutes later when the impactful Smith pounced for a breakdown turnover that looked illegal, with his hand to ground first, but allowed Pollard to smash a penalty over from three metres inside his own half.

It didn’t last long as Ramos’ own penalty brought the French back to within a point with eight minutes left.

The Boks fought their way back down into French territory and though they had won a penalty when Faf de Klerk’s pass came off Woki in an offside position but O’Keeffe ruled he had deliberately passed into him, rather than aiming for Pollard in the pocket waiting for his second drop-goal attempt in a couple of minutes.

France had to break from deep in their desperate last bid to rescue this one but their race was run.

France scorers:

Tries: Cyril Baille [2], Peato Mauvaka

Conversions: Thomas Ramos [2 from 3]

Penalties: Thomas Ramos [3 from 4]

South Africa scorers:

Tries: Kurt-Lee Arendse, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, Eben Etzebeth

Conversions: Manie Libbok [2 from 3], Handré Pollard [1 from 1]

Penalties: Handré Pollard [1 from 1]

FRANCE: Thomas Ramos; Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Louis Bielle-Biarrey; Matthieu Jalibert (Yoram Moefana ’73), Antoine Dupont (captain); Cyril Baille (Reda Wardi ’50), Peato Mauvaka (Pierre Bourgarit ’64), Uini Atonio (Dorian Aldegheri ’58); Cameron Woki, Thibaud Flament (Romain Taofifenu ’50); Anthony Jelonch (Francois Cros ’51), Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt (Sekou Macalou ’69).

Replacement not used: Maxime Lucu

SOUTH AFRICA: Damian Willemse (Willie Le Roux ’51); Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe; Manie Libbok (Handre Pollard ’45), Cobus Reinach (Faf de Klerk ’45); Steven Kitshoff (Ox Nche ’51), Mbongeni Mbonambi (Duane Vermeulen ’74), Frans Malherbe (Vincent Koch ’63); Eben Etzebeth (yellow card ’40), Franco Mostert (RG Snyman ’45); Siya Kolisi (captain) (Deon Fourie ’46), Pieter-Steph Du Toit (HIA – Duane Vermeulen ’61 to ’74), Duane Vermeulen (Kwagga Smith ’51). 

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe [New Zealand].

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