South Africa take it 16-15 in Paris to set-up showdown with New Zealand
They never know when they’re beaten, these South Africans. Behind for 75 minutes, the error-heavy Springboks snatched a 16-15 victory over England to make it back to the Rugby World Cup final.
It felt like England might just do it. Through the sheets of rain you could see the nod from Owen Farrell as he confidently dropped a goal to make it 15-6. In the stand, Steve Borthwick even let a smile escape, while out on the grass the Springboks were wondering just how many errors they were still to make.
But in the end they found a way. And as plug-ugly as their win was, no South African will care how it was done.
Springboks in World Cup final again
It was a match of spilt ball, sloppy lineouts and relentless pursuit of forced errors, but the tension was what held the attention.
Unfancied to trouble the world champions, England put to work a gameplan that forced the normally efficient South Africa to commit mistake after mistake and for over an hour, it delivered.
The Boks didn’t help themselves. Not long intp the first half their lineout gave away two maul turnovers, with two crucial Bongi Mbonambi throws not straight and the green pack looking frustrated. Amongst the English eight, George Martin and Maro Itoje were on a tear. At the back, Freddie Steward was gobbling up kicks while Alex Mitchell was sending box-kick after box-kick hurtling up through the rain. The official stats had it as 17 kicks from hand by the Northampton Saint.
You could feel the South African worry, and after just half an hour, fly-half Manie Libbok was hooked and Handre Pollard sent on to try and stem the errors. Early in the second Faf de Klerk was sent on at nine too. In fact the Boks were cycling through substitutions in the hope of figuring things out, with even Eben Etzebeth sacrificed after being thumped over and over.
After the match, captain Siya Kolisi said: “England did so well in the kicking game, they outplayed us in that. Our discipline was awful in the first half, especially in the key areas where they could take the points.
“But I thought we fought back in the second half, we showed who we are and what we can do with a full 23.”
And as we discuss full squads, perhaps the most important substitutions were in that Boks pack.
So while Farrell was slotting a drop-goal, it was all in service of an England gameplan that meant the ball could never be sent wide and penalties could be won from mistakes. There were flashpoints that impressed – For example, from a 22 drop-out all that was left of Kurt-Lee Arendse was a pair of smoking boots after Elliot Daly chased it down and threw everything into a hit. The crowd loved it.
There was an England-heavy support generally too, and with all the whistling and booing for match official Ben O’Keeffe, who oversaw France’s loss to the Boks last week, you can maybe figure out why…
But on the other side of the ball on the 68th minute, the South Africans eventually kept the head long enough to win a linout, thunder onto quick ball and let RG Snyman crash over for a converted try that made it 15-13.
Tide turned late on for South Africa
From there on, it was England worried about errors, because that would mean scrums. And that is where the replacement forwards for the reigning champions made themselves count.
The English lineout caught the yips too, though, with the sodden conditions making things rough. The normally-reliable Jamie George was seeing throws squirt out of his hands directly upwards. But as the game aged, it was becoming clearer that they would have to do more than just give the ball back to South Africa.
As was always going to happen in this one, it fell to yet another scrum. And with referee O’Keeffe deciding that it was Ellis Genge dropping a knee and coming across, rather than Vincent Koch infringing, No 22 Pollard had the go-ahead to make the telling kick. He slotted the penalty, from just a shade over halfway, and somehow, some way, South Africa got over the line by just a point.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t efficient. But somehow South Africa willed their flailing bodies over the line. They have a date with New Zealand next week, as we decide who will win the tenth Rugby World Cup.
England have to play one more game too, whether they like it or not, as they face Argentina one more time to decide who finishes third. This loss will have broken hearts, but they have to strap up one last time before they get to call it a day.
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