Ruthless Springboks break French hearts to reach Rugby World Cup semi-final

Defending champions South Africa edged France 29-28 in a nail-biting contest at the Stade de France on Sunday to set up a semi-final clash against England and crush the hosts’ hopes of winning a maiden Rugby World Cup title on home soil.

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The Springboks withstood a Paris storm and trailed 22-19 at half-time, before a try by Eben Etzebeth and a Handre Pollard penalty sealed the narrowest of wins for the World Cup title holders. 

That either side should lose in the last eight seemed unjust given the breathtaking display of rugby delivered over 80 scintillating minutes at the Stade de France.

Three tries apiece in an astonishing first half, bone-juddering tackles throughout, blistering line defence and exquisite individual skills left the almost 80,000 squeezed into the packed Paris stadium agog.

Ultimately, experience made the difference for the three-tie champions against a French team playing their first knockout game since coach Fabien Galthié took over four years ago.

France's Gregory Alldritt in action with South Africa's Steven Kitshoff at the Stade de France on October 15, 2023.
France’s Gregory Alldritt in action with South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff at the Stade de France on October 15, 2023. © Sarah Meyssonnier, Reuters

France captain Antoine Dupont returned from cheekbone surgery, but the mercurial scrumhalf ran out of steam and ideas as Les Bleus could only score through tries by Cyril Baille (2) and Peato Mauvaka, Thomas Ramos adding 13 points from the tee.

Smart box-kicking by the Springboks had kept French hearts permanently in their mouths with Thomas Ramos looking less than steady under the barrage of high balls, and it was the Springboks who won a second half tactical arm-wrestle thanks to their power.

The French suffered only their second defeat in 26 home tests under Galthié, and this one will hurt for along time.

A swashbuckling start for France

With a scrum cap and a titanium plate under his cheekbone, Dupont made his mark early with a brilliant kick to tear the South African defence open, but it was prop Baille who touched down in the corner to put the hosts ahead after France cut their opponents to ribbons.

It was a swashbuckling start by France, with Mauvaka intercepting the ball in the midfield and making a bee-line towards the posts, only to be brought down five 10 metres from the line.

Jonathan Danty was held up and shortly afterwards Arendse dived over for South Africa after collecting a fortunate bounce from a speculative kick.

De Allende added South Africa’s second try after France failed to deal properly with yet another high kick. Les Bleus, however, responded quickly and Mauvaka dived over in the corner from a tap-and-go penalty after Dupont had drawn the tackler to set his hooker up.

Thomas Ramos lined up the conversion only for Cheslin Kolbe to sprint out from the goal-line and smother the kick in an extraordinary charge-down.

With barely time to breathe, South Africa regained control when Kolbe outpaced Damian Penaud with astonishing ease to collect Jesse Kriel’s kick and score.

The momentum pendulum was swinging in a blur and after another driving maul Baille touched down for the hosts again.

Ramos gave France a 22-19 halftime lead after Eben Etzebeth was sin-binned following a head-on-head collision with Uini Atonio.

Street fight

The start of the second half was more of a street fight and France threw themselves into the South African defenders head first.

Nienaber made all but one of his changes within the first 10 minutes and South Africa defended tooth and nail, conceding only one penalty during France’s dominant spell.

Les Bleus then went on the back foot and the visitors got their reward when Etzebeth showed great strength to score following a tap penalty and Pollard converted to put the Springboks one point ahead.

Pollard added another penalty before Ramos brought France back within a point, but South Africa defended brilliantly to keep out a late French onslaught.

“It was a hard game. We knew how tough it was going to be with the French team at home and honestly I just want to say well done to them for what they have achieved and how hard they worked,” said a gracious Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s captain.

“I just thought we really wanted it,” he added. “I must give credit to the guys who came off the bench. They came and made a good defence.”

England await having overcome Fiji 30-24 at the Marseille Velodrome to book their last-four spot, setting up a repeat of the 2019 World Cup final that saw the Springboks clinch their third title.

(FRANCE 24 with Reuters, AP)

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