Paris – Three things we learned from South Africa’s dramatic 16-15 semi-final win over England that sets coach Jacques Nienaber’s team up for a final against New Zealand at the Stade de France next weekend:
Handre Pollard didn’t make the initial 33-man Springbok squad, deemed not to have recovered sufficiently from a calf injury.
He made his comeback with 30 minutes in a Premiership Cup game with his club Leicester and before you know it he was on a plane to France as an injury replacement for hooker Malcolm Marx.
The more attacking-minded Manie Libbok had been preferred in the number 10 jersey, but came in for criticism for his wayward goal-kicking.
Libbok was hooked after 30 minutes of the semi-final, Pollard installed at fly-half with one job: claw South Africa back into the game at a rainy Stade de France.
He hit an opening penalty and converted RG Snyman’s try, before soaking up all the pressure to nail a 49-metre penalty to win the game with just three minutes remaining.
“Firstly the scrum penalty, that is what got us the opportunity,” said Pollard, who kicked 22 points when the Boks beat England 32-12 in the 2019 final in Japan.
“It was just a credit to the forwards, they were unbelievable.
“It was a big moment but it is what you want as a player on this stage, to have moments like that as a fly-half is what you live for. It was fun.”
Bok set-piece woe
The set-piece of the scrum and line-out has long been the cornerstone of the Springbok rugby side, the effective platform from which any attacking gameplan is launched.
But the lineout misfired early on to hand England the advantage at several key moments.
Maro Itoje was launched skywards to nab the Boks’ first throw-in and hooker Bongi Mbonambi was not straight in the second.
When South Africa spurned a shot at the posts for a kick to the corner, one expects a rolling maul to attack the line. In this case the 12-man maul was expertly hauled down and England awarded possession.
A second shot at goal also went the way of touch, but Franco Mostert knocked on. The Boks collapsed the resulting scrum, referee Ben O’Keeffe awarding England a penalty to easily escape from their 22m area.
A much-shuffled pack featuring five replacements won the scrum penalty that Pollard converted for victory.
However, heading into the final, Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will be sure to look at how to tighten up the set-piece ahead of the formidable challenge of defending their title against New Zealand.
“We needed some energy, that is why we decided to bring the bench on,” Nienaber said of the so-called “bomb squad” replacements.
“We are fortunate that there is not a lot of difference between the guys who start and the guys on the bench. We needed energy and they brought that.”
Back at full-back for England was Freddie Steward, a surprise omission for the quarter-final against Fiji, which England won 30-24, coach Steve Borthwick instead plumping for specialist fly-half Marcus Smith in the number 15 jersey.
Steward had started 29 of the 30 Tests since his debut in 2021, valued at the back for his superb aerial and defensive game
And he again proved his worth as the rain drove down on the Stade de France, snuffing out the threat posed by the Springboks on contestable kicks.
Leaping brilliantly for his first aerial test from a Manie Libbok bomb settled England nerves and he soon after safely gathered a second under pressure from Cheslin Kolbe.
Fielding one kick, he found Owen Farrell in midfield, the skipper putting up a towering up-and-under which was caught by Damian Willemse, but Steward snagged his opposite number. Courtney Lawes seized the loose ball, Siya Kolisi fouled again at the breakdown and Farrell kicked three more points.
Steward’s sole attacking moment of a tight, defence-oriented match saw him return a Libbok kick knocked down by Jonny May, who along with fellow winger Elliot Daly, benefited from the accurate box-kicking of Alex Mitchell.
The sole blot on his copybook came with a knock-on six minutes from time that piled the pressure on his side. The English scrum collapsed, allowing Pollard to kick the winning penalty.
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