10 September 2007
The Springboks opened their Rugby World Cup challenge with a 59-7 victory over Samoa in a match that contained its fair share of niggle. After struggling to string two passes together in the face of a confrontational approach from the Samoans in the first half, the Boks pulled away to a comfortable victory in the second half.
Bryan Habana was the star of the show, dotting down four times, and twice making tries out nothing with some slippery running, huge acceleration off the mark, and speed, speed, speed.
Addressing the media afterwards, South Africa’s coach Jake White said Habana is a special player – the type of player that wins World Cups. While rugby is a team game, explained White, it often takes a special moment of individual brilliance – like the many that the flying wing produces – to help a team to World Cup success.
‘You can’t coach pace’
“You can’t coach pace,” said White, “and Bryan gives us a dimension few teams have. He was always going to be very important to our World Cup challenge and today you could see why.”
While Habana provided the glitz with his four tries, equalling the Springbok World Cup record that Chester Williams set against Samoa in 1995, it was the pack that also shone, albeit with less glamour than the winger.
The Samoans competed manfully against the Springboks up front, but the set pieces belonged to South Africa. After wearing Samoa down in the early going in the scrums, the Boks had their way with the Pacific islanders, regularly sending them into reverse gear and thus preventing the Samoans from attacking with good ball.
The lineouts, too, belonged to the Springboks as the opposition managed to win less than half their own throw-ins.
Struggling in the tight phases, it became an uphill battle for the Samoans as they had to weather wave after wave of attacks from the Boks, with the flanks, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith, especially prominent.
Facing a pounding from the big South Africans, Samoa couldn’t withstand the onslaught, conceding 38 points in the second half without reply. And that’s despite coach White sending on all his substitutes after the result was beyond doubt.
South Africa suffered one casualty with centre Jean de Villiers forced from the field with a torn biceps muscle. De Villiers, who must be one of the unluckiest players in the game, will require surgery and will miss the rest of the tournament.
On a positive note, his replacement Francois Steyn performed well when he took over at inside centre. He displayed some silky skills to ignite the Springboks’ backline efforts, setting up Jaque Fourie for a try with only his second touch of the ball.
Poor first half
While the Boks won by a big margin, their first half performance was poor as they struggled to build any momentum and continuity. Referee Paul Honiss didn’t help much by repeatedly warning Samoan players for foul play, yet not penalising them.
The South Africans were no angels themselves, but their discipline was considerably better than that shown by the physical Samoans.
By the end of the match, it was one-way traffic and John Smit’s men did enough to convince many that the defending champions England – 28-10 winners over the USA – won’t be able to stop the Boks when the teams meet in the biggest match in Pool A.
The authoritative website Planet Rugby stated it plainly, saying “On this evidence, England’s reign as world champions is over.”
South Africa put early points on the board thanks to a second minute penalty from Percy Montgomery, who finished the match with 29 points to take him within three points of 800 in test matches.
It was scrappy in the early going but, after seven minutes, the Springboks finally managed to get the ball down the backline. Butch James grubbered through for right wing JP Pietersen, but the ball just beat him into touch near the Samoan tryline.
Shortly afterwards, Montgomery had another penalty shot at goal and was again good with his effort to put SA 6-0 in front.
Samoa had an opportunity to get on the board when Schalk Burger collided with Junior Polu in the air as the Samoan attempted to field a kick. Gavin Williams took the penalty, but his effort was off target.
With a quarter-of-an-hour played, Montgomery lifted South Africa into a nine-point lead with a third penalty from about 45 metres out.
Three minutes later, the Boks were shocked when Samoa scored the opening try of the contest. The ball was moved down the backline from a lineout and outside centre Williams ran an excellent line on the shoulder of his midfield partner Jerry Meafou to take the pop pass and slice through the South African defence to score easily next to the uprights.
Williams converted his own try to reduce South Africa’s advantage to only two points at 9-7.
That score seemed to stun the Springboks somewhat and there followed a period of play in which the Samoans more than held their own.
South Africa needed to find some inspiration and it came from the most predictable source: cue Bryan Habana.
Receiving a pass on Samoa’s 10 metre line, he stepped inside a would-be tackler, ducked another player’s attempt and cut infield. Stopping on a dime, he changed direction back to the outside, dummied a pass, and raced over for the Springboks’ first try after 33 minutes of play.
It was a superb solo effort and the kind of try that very few players in the game are capable of scoring.
Montgomery’s kicking compass was ill-aligned and his conversion attempt left South Africa 14-7 ahead.
Four minutes later, the Boks nearly had their second five-pointer. After moving the ball to the right, Burger made a break, fighting off two tackles before passing over his shoulder to the backline once more. The ball was moved to Pietersen on the flank, but he was held up over the line.
The Samoans were then subjected to a series of scrums only five metres from their line. Time and again the Springboks drove the islanders back. To counter the powerful Bok scrum, the Samoans tried to twist to the side to force resets. A number of times they conceded penalties by collapsing the scrum, but SA captain John Smit was only too happy to ask for another scrum.
After six resets one began to wonder why referee Honiss had not signaled a penalty try. Then, one was left to wonder why the Springboks finally chose to move the ball wide when they had the Samoans’ number in the scrums.
The answer to that question came in the form of Percy Montgomery. The Boks created an overlap out wide and the fullback, spotting hesitation in Samoa’s defence, raced between two players to crash over for a try right on the halftime whistle.
He converted his five-pointer to leave South Africa 21-7 to the good at the break.
There was a fright for the Springboks after the restart when Butch James had his kick for touch charged down, but Burger was on hand to clean up and prevent the Samoans from scoring.
Just four minutes into the second stanza, Steyn came on for De Villiers and immediately made an impact, breaking from inside the South African 22-metre area and making 40 metres up the field before kicking the ball into touch.
Three minutes later, he held back a pass before releasing Fourie through a gap to score the Boks’ third try.
Montgomery added the extras to extend South Africa’s lead to 28-7 and suddenly the combative Samoan defences were looking fragile.
Montgomery’s second try
Just over five minutes later, the South Africans notched their fourth try. It started with a huge scrum by the pack and after moving the ball through a number of phases, Montgomery went over for his second.
He missed the conversion, but SA had moved well clear at 33-7.
The momentum was with South Africa and the team was showing greater fluency and cohesion, but the next try once again came from a superb solo effort from Habana. Taking a pass from Montgomery on the halfway line, he saw off the efforts of three tacklers to break through the Samoan defences and score near the posts.
Monty converted to lift South Africa into a 40-7 lead.
After an hour, Samoa sent on Brian Lima to play in his record fifth World Cup. He lasted only two minutes on the field, however. Attempting a late and dangerous hit on Andre Pretorius, leading with his head and without using his arms, he hit the Springbok in the chest but came off second best.
Lima was led from the field looking dazed and confused. Viewed objectively, the veteran should be cited for a terrible tackle, but the fact that he was injured carrying it out might have saved him from being cited.
With 66 minutes gone on the clock, Habana claimed his hat-trick. After the Springboks were awarded a penalty five metres from the Samoan tryline, he took a quick tap and burst towards the white line. Two players tried to stop him, but Habana managed to ground the ball.
Montgomery put over the easy conversion, moving South Africa to within sight of 50 points.
Ten minutes later, Habana scored his fourth try. The Boks found some space down the left hand flank and once Habana had the ball in his hands, with open ground in front of him, he hit the afterburners to speed over from about 45 metres out.
Montgomery was off line with his attempt at a conversion of the try, but South Africa had moved past the 50-point mark at 52-7 to the good.
With only two minutes to go it seemed Habana had scored his fifth try of the game, but referee Honiss, questionably, ruled the pass to the winger forward.
However, a minute later, Pietersen, on the opposite wing, completed the rout by rounding off a backline move that included a sweet catch-and-pass from Fourie, which created the space out wide.
Montgomery split the uprights with a conversion from the touchline and the final whistle sounded with South Africa convincing winners by 59 points to seven.
Eight tries to one
Thus, the match finished with Smit and company running in eight tries to one. All eight five-pointers went to the backline, but the forwards deserved something for the manner in which they systematically dismantled the combative approach of the Samoan forwards and laid the platform for the fast men at the back.
Next up for the Springboks is the big one versus England on Friday in Saint-Denis.
Based on the performances produced by South Africa and England in their first matches, it would be a shock if the men in green and gold don’t walk away with a victory over the defending champions.