Bok bench heroic in salvaging semi-final

While England plotted one of the great World Cup upsets, holding a nine-point lead on the Boks in the final quarter of the semi-final, HARRY JONES extols the Bomb Squad for detonating the plan.

Once upon a time, when fields were rendered quagmires by a winter rain, we, the Province privileged, boarded a brand new bus by the brewery next to Newlands to play a friendly against Boland’s best in the apple orchards of Elgin. We thought we knew rain; the happy streams that fed Kirstenbosch’s robust flowers and ran deep under the festive varsity pubs. We knew only the domesticated, deciduous rains of Cape Town, with the dark mountain near, like some ancient ruined citadel, keeping Atlantic winter at bay, and the peninsula safe and fair.

Our grim pipe-smoking coach was not happy because he was never happy. We will call him Meneer Witwaterskant or ‘Oom Kant’ because he was a rugby philosopher and a part-time embalmer in Wynberg.

That day he warned us to stop “disco dancing” as we went up and over Sir Lowry’s Pass into a different world. He told us of what awaited: harder shoulders and heavier balls, invisible lines and uniforms of mud, the end of plans and backline formations, and how our own glittering reputations for skill and speed and scoring would make us the hunted, the prey, the apple to be eaten. “You won’t be dancing; it will be scrums until you die.”

Each mile spewed more rain until we were blind over the Steenbras Dam. We grew silent as Oom Kant wanted and as we took the long curve past apple trees and turned to the small stadium, our bus sank slowly into the muck, as the locals laughed.

All I smelled was apples and mud. And the rain went up a notch. At kick-off, the ball plugged on the fifty.

The next two hours took three. Our scissors moves went nowhere. Our disco wing speed was irrelevant. We loosies had to play tight and our tight five had to fight. No lineout was completed as the ball became a slick, sloppy boulder of granite as heavy as our scrumhalf.

Every single thing which made us good was gone and washed away. Ribs and elbows and knees; and vengeful up-and-unders exposing us to stampedes with an extra dose of anger. At the bottom of a ruck, as my opposite No 8 kneeled on my neck, and talked to me about how long my hair was and where I should go, and I swallowed mud or as I imagined, apple chutney, I instantly developed a lifelong loathing of applesauce and apple cider.

We would have loved a bomb squad. A set of fireplug props (one incredible and the other an ox), a ferocious fetcher, a berserker behemoth playing above the pile, a Kwagga, an ace boot, and an Asterix with magic potion to give us special powers.

In the end we, who were supposed to win by thirty, survived by three.

Thus it was in the Saint-Denis deluge where the English brought the long bow, forty-one kicks launched into the spitting sky, and eleven reclaimed. They never looked like crossing the line, but a snarling drop goal from halfway also counts, too. It counts a lot. It’s worth a truckload of apples in the rain.

English players grow up in rain. Manchester and Leicester have twice or three times the rainfall of South Africa’s wettest towns.

How you learn to play as a boy does stick with you; even if Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard have spent plenty of time in those English cities, as have Willie le Roux and Vincent Koch. However, it did help South Africa that they know how to play the conditions (and the referee).

The players know each other well: from Saracens, from Northampton, Sale, Leicester, and other rainy towns.

The familiarity bred contrasts.

And unlike our team in the orchards, the Springboks do have a bomb squad and England brought 15 boys to do a 23-man job.

Steve Borthwick earns the highest marks for selecting starting size: George Martin to smash and Freddie Steward to grab. Courtney Lawes has only ever played one way, but this was among his finest tournaments. Owen Farrell was peak feral, but also precise and dialled in: 1000 metres off the boot by him, Steward, and Alex Mitchell was the way to play.

But his finishers fizzled: a tiny slice of George Ford, a slowed Billy Vunipola, so-so Ollie Lawrence, and crucially, Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler who were turned into apple pie by Ox Nche and Vincent Koch, with the admirable assist from 80-minute man, Bongi Mbonambi.

The English bench could not stem the 10-0 Bok run. They were a vivid contrast to the magisterial control exercised by De Klerk and Pollard, powered by the range and edge of RG Snyman who scored like a Munsterman fleeing a firepit, animated by tireless Kwagga Smith and ageless Deon Fourie, and anchored by Koch.

Prior to the match I fatefully posted “If I had to guess which player will make the biggest difference in the last quarter, I’d say Ox. Just a gut feeling.” Cometh the cake, cometh the man. The gut is good in the rain. It’s ballast.

Willie le Roux did not fix the flaws, but knew to button things down more than Damian Willemse did. Mostly, he was the king of celebrations: “How do you like those apples?”

The French and the English have been pushed aside and the old foe remains in the pathway to glory.

The forecast for Paris this Saturday is rain. I will have a green raincoat on.

Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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