25 September 2007
The Springboks secured their place in the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup with a 30-25 win over Tonga in Lens on Saturday. A second-string starting fifteen failed to produce the goods, littering their effort with errors, which led to SA coach Jake White inserting his all-star substitutes’ bench early in the second half.
Even though White and his fellow selectors made 11 changes to the outfit that crushed England 36-0, the Boks had been expected to win, and to win comfortably, but it proved to be a nail-biting victory for South Africa.
Echoes of Connacht
A similar team had struggled to an 18-0 defeat of Connacht in a World Cup warm-up match, but another poor performance like the one produced against the Irish team was not expected; after all, surely the side couldn’t perform so poorly again?
They could. And they did.
It wasn’t that the Springboks didn’t create opportunities to score points. Rather, it was that they found ways to not score the points on offer.
Flyhalf Andre Pretorius had a miserable day with the boot, landing only one out of five penalties. Ironically, it was with his toughest kick of the match that he neatly bisected the uprights.
Pretorius also missed his touch kicks time after time. This made matters difficult for the Boks because it allowed the Tongans to play from their strength – open play – while it prevented SA from employing one of its strengths – the lineouts.
Question about SA squad depth
The contest clearly showed that as much as White likes to proclaim he has a world-class 30-man squad, it doesn’t run as deep as that. In fact, the truth is that his first-choice team and substitutes is capable of beating any side, but beyond that there is a dramatic falloff in quality.
Thankfully, for White, he had the most experienced bench in the history of test rugby at his disposal, with the seven players boasting 311 caps between them, which was 107 more than the entire Tongan starting team had.
Viewing the match from a positive viewpoint, it was a case of mission accomplished for the Boks as they booked their place in the quarterfinals. With only one more match to play against the winless USA, the chances are very good that South Africa will top Pool A, and most probably face Wales in the last eight.
The manner in which they defeated Tonga, however, will have left many Springboks supporters with a hollow feeling about the victory. After the thrashing of England, optimism ran rife throughout South African fans about the chances of winning the World Cup; that optimism will have been tempered after the stuttering success against the Sea Eagles.
From the start, the Boks’ play was scrappy as Bob Skinstad and co failed to settle into any sort of rhythm that allowed them to string their passes together. Time after time the players went into a ruck with the ball and time after time they gave up possession.
After eight minutes Tonga was the first on the scoreboard. They won a penalty when JP Pietersen spilled a ball forward and into one of his teammates who, by playing the ball, was offsides. Flyhalf Pierre Hola nailed the kick at goal to put his side into the lead.
Two minutes later, Pretorius had an opportunity to level the scores, but his penalty attempt was off target.
After a quarter-of-an-hour the Bok flyhalf had another chance to pull South Africa level, but he was again wide of the mark.
Then, after South Africa was awarded another penalty, the Tongans drifted towards the poles, expecting Pretorius to take another shot at goal. Fullback Ruan Pienaar, cleverly summing up the situation, took a quick tap, rounded the thin defence and dived over in the corner for the opening try of the match.
This time Pretorius was on target with his touchline conversion, putting SA 7-3 in front.
The Tongans came close to replying with a try of their own, but the pass to Soane Tonga’uiha, who appeared set to score, was ruled forward.
Pretorius then had a chance to extend the Springboks’ lead, but his compass wasn’t functioning properly and the gap between the two sides remained at four points.
With 32 minutes on the clock, the Boks should have added a second try. However, the pass from Wynand Olivier to Ashwin Willemse, with the Sea Eagles’ defence stretched to breaking point, was a poor one and the momentum of the move was lost, which enabled Tonga to stop the South African attack.
A minute later, Ricky Januarie broke to the blind side and fed Willemse. The winger was over the tryline, but he bobbled the ball and lost it forward as yet another try-scoring opportunity was blown.
Tonga could have made it 7-6 shortly before the break, but Hola hooked his shot at goal. So, the teams went into the break with South Africa leading only 7-3. It should have been a far greater advantage.
Within the first five minutes after the restart, Tonga drove over the South African tryline and tighthead prop Kisi Pulu was credited with the try. Hola slotted the conversion to put the Pacific islanders into a 10-7 lead.
By this time, SA coach Jake White had seen enough and he immediately sent on five replacements, namely John Smit, BJ Botha, Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana, and Francois Steyn.
Two minutes later, Pretorius once more butchered a penalty attempt, leaving South Africa still three points adrift.
When the Boks were awarded a penalty in the 53rd minute, with Pretorius having been replaced, Steyn took over the kicking duties and duly showed how it should be done, converting the kick to draw the teams level at 10-all.
SA hit the lead
Finally, with almost an hour played, South Africa strung some good passes together and, after CJ van der Linde was held up just short of the line, the ball was recycled quickly for Juan Smith – yet another of the substitutes – to sidestep a Tongan defender and crash over for a try.
Steyn was lining up the conversion, but Percy Montgomery, winning his Springbok record 90th test cap, took over and calmly booted the conversion to put South Africa 17-10 in front.
It took the Boks just three more minutes to score again. Another beautiful flowing move was completed when Bob Skinstad did the honours, holding off a tackler to cross in the right-hand corner for a five-pointer.
Skirmish and yellow cards
Referee Wayne Barnes held up the conversion attempt to deal with some off-the-ball stuff going on in the midfield. It led to Barnes sending Steyn and Tongan winger Joseph Vaka to the sin bin.
Vaka could consider himself lucky because he had been warned earlier in the game about running from a distance to get himself involved in pushing and shoving, which was exactly what he did, yanking Steyn off of a player the South African had tackled.
After that break, Montgomery missed the tough conversion, leaving SA 22-10 to the good.
Flowing move and try
Three minutes later the Boks once more cracked the Tongan defences as the back and forwards linked up well in a flowing move which ended with Pienaar diving over in the corner for his second try.
Montgomery missed the conversion but, at 27-10, South Africa looked comfortably in control.
Then, with 11 minutes to play and Tonga on the attack, Habana was somewhat harshly yellow-carded for preventing the ball from emerging at a ruck. That meant SA had 13 players on the field against the 14 of Tonga.
Sea Eagles’ flyhalf Pierre Hola immediately looked to exploit his side’s numerical superiority by kicking wide for the left-hand corner. Centre Sukanaivalu Hufanga gathered the kick and dotted down in a very tight decision which the television match official ruled in favour of the Tongans.
Hola’s conversion attempt lacked the precision of his cross kick, leaving the Springboks 27-15 in front.
Two tries in two minutes
Only two minutes later, Tonga crossed for a third try. Kicking to the spaces out wide, they managed to beat the Boks to the ball until, eventually, flanker Viliami Vaki kicked through and won the race to the ball to add another five points.
Hola converted to make the score 27-22 to the Boks, thus bringing the Tongans to within range of snatching a win, as well as close enough to secure a bonus point if they lost.
Montgomery took the Sea Eagles out of bonus point range by goaling a penalty with four minutes to play, but Hola brought them back to within five points by replying with a penalty of his own.
With time running out, Tonga surged up the middle of the field, gulping up the metres as they moved to deep within Springbok territory. From a ruck, a clever kick was knocked over the the top for winger Tevita Tu’ifua, but the bounce carried the ball into touch.
Referee Barnes blew the final whistle, leaving South Africa somewhat relieved 30-25 winners.
White credits bench
Afterwards, Bok coach Jake White credited his experienced bench with pulling off the win for South Africa. Nonetheless, he said he never feared the men in green and gold would lose the match.
White said playing with only 13 players had been difficult, but had the Springboks taken advantage of their scoring opportunities, especially their kicks at goal, they would have been comfortably in front at halftime.
Among the second stringers, only Ruan Pienaar ehanced his reputation. Apart from the versatile backline player, there was little to enthuse about.
The victory kept South Africa’s record against Tonga perfect, following a 74-10 victory in 1997. It also lifted the Springboks’ record in World Cup matches to 17 wins in 20 tests.