8 October 2007
The Springboks booked their place in the Rugby World Cup semifinals with a hard-fought 37-20 win over Fiji at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Sunday. After the upset defeats of New Zealand and Australia on Saturday, that leaves South Africa as the sole Tri-Nations representative left in the competition.
Going on the form displayed by the southern hemisphere sides in the pool matches, it appeared a done deal that the semifinals would feature an all-southern hemisphere line-up. However, England first trumped Australia 12-10, then France edged the All Blacks 20-18.
Through the course of the tournament, results have gone South Africa’s way, with the Boks having to face Fiji in the quarterfinals when Wales were expected to reach the last eight, and now Argentina – 19-13 winners over Scotland – in the semifinals when it was expected that France would be the opposition.
On the other side of the draw, the two highest ranked teams in the world are out of the tournament. That means, no matter what the results of the semifinal showdown are, the battle for the title will be between a northern hemisphere and a southern-hemisphere team.
Most people expected South Africa to easily deal with the Fijians in their last eight clash. However, despite the 17-point gap at the end of the contest, it was a very closely contested match, decided in the last quarter only, and after an hour it appeared that the Pacific islanders could spring a surprise and score the third upset win of the quarterfinals when they drew level at 20-20.
After the contest, Springbok coach Jake White paid tribute to captain John Smit for the way in which he rallied his team for the final quarter of the clash. The players, too, said Smit’s calm and inspirational leadership played a huge role in the Boks resisting the fierce Fijian challenge.
White was also complimentary towards the veterans in the very experienced South African team, saying they had stood up when it counted.
Ultimately, South Africa’s superiority in the set scrums took its toll on Fiji. Good tactical kicking in the last 20 minutes, which pinned the Fijians deep in their own half, along with SA’s superior forward power, saw Smit and company pull away to take the win.
The match started with Springboks surging forward, driving towards the Fijian 22-metre line. Fiji countered, but one of their players entered the ruck illegally from the side and referee Alan Lewis awarded a penalty to South Africa.
It was a relatively easy kick, but the usually reliable Percy Montgomery got it slightly wrong as he directed the ball into the outside of the right hand upright.
The play was all down in the Fijian half, with South Africa looking well organised and calm. After a few driving mauls that impressively gained ground, it became clear that Fiji had a problem containing the Bok pack in that facet of play. Skipper Smit took note of that and would later use it to SA’s advantage.
With seven minutes played, Fiji captain Mosese Rauluni conceded a penalty for not rolling away at a ruck, just inside the South African half. Francois Steyn took the long-distance shot at goal from 53 metres and slotted it straight down the middle with ease to put SA into a 3-0 lead.
Six minutes later, after South Africa had won a penalty inside the Fijian 22, Smit, remembering his side’s success in the maul, opted to kick for touch instead of taking an easy shot at goal.
In a beautifully controlled passage of play, the Boks drove at the Fiji tryline through a number of phases, but Juan Smith was stopped just short. South Africa still had control of the ball however, and they had stretched the Fijian defence to its breaking point.
Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez picked the ball up from the ruck, and, with a zippy flat pass to the left, found Jaque Fourie near the sideline where he had outflanked the opposition. Fourie crossed for the first try of the contest to put the Boks 8-0 in front.
Montgomery made a mess of the difficult conversion from out wide, meaning no extras accrued.
Just over 10 minutes later Fiji finally found their way onto the scoreboard. Bakkies Botha was penalised at a lineout for pulling down his opponent in the air and Seremaia Bai made South Africa pay for that by slotting a penalty.
Smit dots down
The Springboks had to wait until five minutes before the break to score a second try. Again, it was the South Africans’ superiority in the driving maul that led to the score. From a lineout five metres from the Fijian tryline the Boks set up another maul. Under pressure, Fiji’s defence fell apart and John Smit blasted through for the five-pointer.
Once again, Montgomery was unable to convert, leaving South Africa 13-3 to the good, which was the halftime score.
Fiji started the second half well, playing the game in the SA half, and when Bryan Habana slipped on the counter-attack and held on to the ball just outside South Africa’s 22-metre area, the islanders were awarded a penalty. Bai knocked it over to reduce the deficit to 13-6.
The Springboks were next to score, once again from well-structured play. It saw them creating a number of overlaps wide on the right. Victor Matfield drove hard at the last defender, holding the ball clear so that he could offload to JP Pietersen, who took the short pass and cantered over the line for South Africa’s third try.
Montgomery was on target this time, putting SA into a 20-6 lead.
Immediately following the conversion, referee Lewis, with the assistance of a linesman, showed centre Seru Rabeni a yellow card for a shoulder charge off the ball on Butch James during South Africa’s try-scoring move. It was a good call, but Lewis, unfortunately, missed a number of other dangerous and high tackles during the course of the match.
Fiji were down to 14 men, but if anybody thought that was it for them, their challenge as good as done, they were in for a rude awakening.
Keeping possession well, Rauluni’s men took a number of shots at the Springboks’ defensive line, but there appeared to be no way through. Then, Vilimoni Delesau, the left wing, created an opening by kicking over the top and down the left sideline. It appeared that his kick might be a little too strong, but the bounce of the ball favoured Delesau as it held up. Showing great speed, he raced through to pounce on it inside the try scoring area.
Bai nailed the conversion to pull the Fijians within seven points at 20-13.
A minute later the Springboks were shocked as Fiji scored again. From the kickoff the islanders brought the ball up the field, trying to punch holes in South Africa’s defences around the rucks. Rauluni finally got it right, escaping Schalk Burger and bursting into the 22. As Burger was about to haul him in, the scrumhalf offloaded to Sireli Bobo, who crashed over for the try.
Bai put over the easy conversion to level the scores at 20-20. The French crowd, thrilled by the Fijians’ fighting spirit and enterprising play, got strongly behind the underdogs, urging them on.
While the conversion took place, Springbok captain Smit could be seen urging his players on to greater heights, the passion clear in the way he spoke his words. They appeared to do the trick as South Africa lifted their game, but still there was some drama to overcome.
After Fiji stopped a South African attack by entering a maul from the side, Montgomery had another shot at goal. His kick was straight and true, edging the Springboks back in front at 23-20 after 63 minutes.
The Pacific islanders were still in the game and they countered by launching onto the attack once more.
Bai tried a drop goal, but mistimed his effort and ball passed to the left of the uprights. Again, the Fijians took the ball through the hands, moving it out to the left.
Lock Ifereimi Rawaqa received it near the touchline and in space. He raced towards the tryline and dived across the chalk, but, in what many considered to be the key moment in the match, Pietersen tackled the big man and somehow managed to twist him over and out of play, without the ball having been grounded. The result was a 22-metre drop out for South Africa.
Three minutes later, after James had put SA onto the attack once more with a well angled touch-finder, it was back to the maul to score more points.
Juan Smith won a Bok throw-in and the rest of the forward pack came together around him and drove for the tryline. With the Fijian forwards in disarray as they tried to stop the SA pack, Smith broke off the back and dived over for his fourth try in four matches at the World Cup.
Montgomery’s successful conversion gave the Springboks some breathing room at 30-20 in front.
South Africa then moved back onto the offensive and James tried to increase the lead by taking a drop goal. His kick was touched by a Fijian, but it still crossed the dead ball line, meaning SA was awarded a scrum five metres from the try line.
By this time, the Fijians forwards were battling and the Springboks easily shoved them backwards. Burger, playing at eighthman after Danie Rossouw had been substituted, picked up and attempted to dive over, but the ball was knocked loose and Fiji were awarded a scrum.
The islanders had, no doubt, gone offsides to stop Burger, but referee Lewis saw nothing untoward.
Rauluni put the ball in and the Fijians were immediately forced backwards. Finally, they managed to get the ball out of the scrum, but no pass was available and South Africa forced another five-metre scrum, with the asdvantage of the put-in.
Again, SA went for the pushover try, and again they were thwarted, this time by eighthman Sisa Koyamaibole, who stole around the scrum, all the way to Burger at the back of the Springbok pack to prevent him scoring a try. A penalty try could easily been awarded, but all the referee did was award South Africa another scrum.
After releasing the ball, the Boks took a number of shots at the try line from close range with the forwards. Finally, Du Preez passed it to flyhalf James, who ran from the right of the scrum to the left, taking the pass at pace. He tucked the ball under his left arm, away from the tacklers, and powered his way between two players to score South Africa’s fifth try.
Montgomery sealed the victory with a successful conversion, leaving the Springboks 37-20 victors, and sending them into the semifinals as the highest ranked team left in the tournament.
The man of the match was undoubtedly Juan Smith, whose excellent form throughout the World Cup has confirmed his status as a world class player.
Springboks versus Pumas
Next up, the Springboks will take on Argentina on Saturday in Paris for a place in the final. The Boks have never lost to the Pumas, but Agustin Pichot’s team has played very well until now, and it will take a focused South African performance to stop them.
One thing is clear heading into the match. The Boks have the belief that they have what it takes to become world champions. They will be out to prove that on the field.