Rassie Erasmus is not taking a Springbok win over Tonga for granted, as he predicts plenty can still happen in the conclusion of the World Cup pool stage.
A loss to Ireland in the Pool B blockbuster has left South Africa in second place and four points adrift of the world’s number-one side, with one fixture to go for both teams.
The Springboks, who won their opening matches against Romania and Scotland, lock horns with Tonga on Sunday night, while Ireland and Scotland will face off on the following Saturday, 7 October.
Tonga have struggled in their opening fixtures, conceding a total of 104 points to Ireland and Scotland, but can call on a few ex-All Blacks – fullback Charles Piutau among them – to cause a potential upset.
“We know Romania are a tier-two team who don’t have a lot of opportunities and don’t have a lot of full-time professional players,” said Erasmus. “Even though World Rugby is trying to support them and they are on the up, they are still a bit off the pace when it comes to tier-one nations.
“But Tonga have players who have played at the highest level for various countries and there are quite a few names there that scare you. They have individual threats, individual brilliance and are well coached. I know [Tonga head coach] Toutai Kefu really well. I played against him in my playing days and he was good at scrumming and mauling and lineouts.
“Although we know the Tonga game will be a tough one, as the Scotland game will be for Ireland, that will probably determine who will be number one or two or three in the pool. I thought Scotland was always going to be a slippery game and it might be a tough one for Ireland as well, and so can Tonga be for us.”
Currently, the Springboks are on track to face France in the quarter-finals, which would be the second time that they face the tournament hosts in the playoffs, having beaten Japan in 2019.
However, Erasmus said that Italy and New Zealand could yet make a late push to finish in the top two spots in Pool A.
“I still think that pool is not sorted out yet and not 100% determined,” said Erasmus. “A lot of people will say France are favourites but you never know on the day, Italy might have a great day. On our side, as coaches we have no idea who we prefer to play, it would be so disrespectful.
“I don’t think playing Japan [four years ago] will really benefit us. Japan were ranked eight, nine, 10 in the world when we played them, a developing country that hosted a wonderful tournament. But France are always in the top four in the world and I don’t think that will help us against a quality French team playing at home with a passionate crowd, where rugby is like a religion.”
Photo: Valery HACHE / AFP