The Springboks ground out an 18-17 win against France on Saturday to end a five-game winless streak. JON CARDINELLI at the Stade de France reports.
The result should be seen as a positive. After two draws against the Wallabies, after two losses to the All Blacks, and after last week’s record defeat against Ireland, the Boks are finally back to winning ways.
South African rugby needed a good news story. After all that’s happened on the field over the past three months, and indeed after what transpired in London recently with France pipping South Africa for the right to host the 2023 World Cup, the union and the rugby fraternity as a whole desperately needed a reason to celebrate.
Not that the Boks were particularly good at the Stade de France on Saturday.
They started well, with the forwards bossing the collisions and their halfbacks kicking the ball deep into France territory. Their passing and kicking lacked accuracy at times – often to a comically bad degree – and their lineout wobbled.
Ross Cronjé and Handré Pollard were guilty of some atrocious decision-making. All that said, the Boks were in control of field position, and deserved to be 8-0 ahead after 30 minutes.
France took half an hour to get going. Their forwards showed little appetite for engaging the Boks in the trenches. Their backs attempted to run every ball out of their 22 and thereby played into the pragmatic Boks’ hands.
The momentum swung in the hosts’ favour, however, after the Boks lost a lineout deep in France territory. The ball was launched into the night sky, and the Boks let it bounce. France reacted first, claiming possession and then moving the ball to Teddy Thomas.
The right wing danced his way through the Bok defence and was eventually brought to ground inside the Boks’ 22. From there, Anthony Belleau ghosted through, leaving Jesse Kriel trailing in his wake.
The Boks had their chances to finish the half on a high. Pollard, starting his first Test since the 2015 World Cup, proceeded to push three goal-attempts wide. A total of eight points went begging as a result.
The partisan crowd booed every time the Bok flyhalf placed the ball on the tee, and then cheered when the touch judges failed to raise their flags. The Boks could have been 16-7 up at half-time. As it was, they jogged back into the changeroom with the game still in the balance at 8-7.
Belleau was more ruthless than his opposite number, with ball in hand and in front of goal. The 21-year-old slotted a penalty in 47th minute to steer his side into the lead for the first time in the contest.
France failed to take control from there, though. Poor game management saw them camped in their own 22 for extended periods, and shocking handling and discipline gifted the Boks scoring chances.
After missing his fourth goal of the evening, Pollard had yet another chance to regain the lead. Reserve scrumhalf Baptise Serin was sent to the sin bin for cynical play. This time, Pollard made no mistake. The crowd responded with an ironic cheer.
The Boks landed a telling blow thereafter. Cronjé threw a wayward pass out in front of Eben Etzebeth, and the giant lock had to use his formidable reach to haul it in.
Replays suggested that the Bok captain may have lost the ball forward in trying to offload to Kriel. The try was eventually awarded, though, and Pollard added the extras to steer the Boks into an important eight-point lead with 18 minutes remaining.
Belleau missed a late shot on goal. France continued to apply the pressure, and scored through Serin. Belleau added the extras to reduce the deficit to a single point.
The Boks controlled possession and territory thereafter, working hard to kill the clock. As the final whistle sounded, France were left to lament the cost of Belleau’s late miss, and indeed Serin’s untimely yellow card. The Boks celebrated an unconvincing, yet important victory.
France – Try: Anthony Belleau, Baptiste Serin. Conversions. Belleau (2). Penalty: Belleau.
Springboks – Tries: Dillyn Leyds, Jesse Kriel. Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (2).
France – 15 Nans Ducuing, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Mathieu Bastareaud, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Judicael Cancoriet, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Subs: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Sebastien Taofifenua, 18 Daniel Kotze, 19 Paul Jedreasiak, 20 Anthony Jelonch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Damian Penaud.
Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Dan du Preez, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian de Allende.
Photo: EPA/Yoan Valat