South Africa scored a last-gasp try to defeat France 29-26 on Saturday to remain unbeaten against their European hosts since 2009.
Oh, the slender difference between winning and losing. And, oh, the huge difference between gloom and glee, that follows winning and losing.
Last week the Springboks lost to England by a point and bemoaned the non-penalty as 80 minutes passed on the clock. This week, all that disappeared, when a succession of penalties gave them victory after 84 minutes of the match. The margin of victory was only three points as Handré Pollard kicked one more goal than the French kickers.
That was enough to send Springbok joy rocketing sky high and French gloom plumbing the depths.
Sport is a hard taskmaster.
France led 16-9 at half-time and 23-9 two minutes into the second half, after scoring two tries to none. Immediately the great fightback of the Springboks started. They stopped kicking the ball to France as much and it paid off. (Faf de Klerk kicked seven “box” kicks in the first half to four in the second half, all of which were troublesome to South Africa.)
But the big change from the Twickenham defeat was in the line-outs. Late in the match, during that period of penalties and at the four line-outs that followed on excellent work by Francois Louw at a tackle, Bongi Mbonambi threw in without error.
The tension was at bursting point in the last moments of the match as four successive penalties moved the Springboks from inside their own 22 to close to the French line.
The score was 26-22 to France. To win South Africa had to score a try. Aphiwe Dyantyi seemed to have scored one off a pass from Willie le Roux, but closer inspection through the TMO showed that the pass had been forward. Spirits dropped. But, no, it was not over as the referee had been playing advantage and went back to the penalty against Paul Gabrillagues for collapsing a maul. Elton Jantjies kicked out for a five-metre line-out.
Mbonambi threw deep to Franco Mostert. The Springboks’ formed a maul and, after initial French resistance, they got it driving at the line with Mbonambi in possession at the back. At less than half a metre from the try-line, Mbonambi broke away and fell over for the try that produced the great emotional divide between the two teams. To rub it in, Pollard, whose goal-kicking had been faultless all match, goaled from far out.
Oh, the joy – and woe, the gloom.
It was not a great match except for the tension of the scoring and for the great, heated French crowd on a cold, rainy night.
Strangely, the Springboks played in white. In the previous 43 matches between the two countries, the Springboks wore their customary green. This time they wore white.
After the anthems, there was, as is usual in France, a ceremonial kick-off, this time by the Paris Guide Dog School, and the representative dog went off with the ball in its mouth.
The crowd chanted Allez les Bleus as Pollard kicked off.
In the first 10 minutes, France attacked. Maxime Médard launched a counterattack off a De Klerk kick, Camille Lopez kicked a diagonal that just bounced away from Damian Penaud and Baptiste Serin kicked two penalty goals to give France a 6-0 lead.
But in the next 10 minutes, Pollard’s made it 6-all with two penalty goals, the second a kick of some 49 metres. Then he kicked another and after 49 minutes, South Africa led 9-6.
Lopez kicked a diagonal which Dyantyi knocked into touch for an attacking French line-out. They attacked until Lopez stood back and dropped a goal from in front as Pollard tried to charge it down. 9-all after 33 minutes.
Sibu Nkosi leapt and won the kick and the Springboks were on the attack in France’s 22 till Pieter-Steph du Toit knocked on and the French grabbed the advantage and raced down the right. For the only time in the match Teddy Thomas, France’s magnificent wing, got a runaway. He looked likely to score till, as the tall wing ignored support, Willie le Roux stepped forward and tackled him.
But the Springboks helped the French to stay attacking with a feeble exit kick. The French advanced a maul from the subsequent line-out. Guillhem Guirado broke away as De Klerk refrained from tackling him and scored in Marx’s tackle. Serin converted and, as the rain came down, half-time came with France leading 16-9.
In that half, France had enjoyed 65% of possession and had missed no tackles while the Springboks had missed 18.
France had a dream start to the second half. De Klerk kicked a box kick out on the full and Lopez hoisted a high up-and-under towards the Springbok posts. Nkosi knocked on and Mathieu Bastareaud picked up and crashed over. 23-9 after 42 minutes.
From the kick-off, Du Toit put pressure on lock Sébastien Vahaamahina who knocked the ball backwards where Nkosi grabbed the ball and scored a try in Arthur Iturria’s tackle. 23-16 after 44 minutes.
After that rollicking start, the half quietened down.
When Louis Picamoles was penalised, Pollard goaled. 23-19 after 52 minutes and eight minutes later he goaled again. 23-22 – with 20 minutes to play.
Both sides were replacing players.
The Springboks were penalised at a scrum and again Serin goaled. 26-22 with 13 minutes to play.
Cheslin Kolbe, on for Nkosi, raced down the right touchline off a wonderful pass from Le Roux and, as Arthur Iturria tackled him, he seemed to have scored. But consultation with their TMO showed Kolbe losing the ball forward.
France were attacking when the four penalties drove them into a desperate defence. Then came the “try” by Dyantyi which was not given because of a forward pass, but back they went to the penalty for collapsing a maul, the line-out, the advancing maul and Mbonambi’s winning try.
Man of the Match: Maxime Médard.
Moment of the Match: Bongi Mbonambi’s try.
Villain of the Match: Nobody
Tries: Guirado, Bastareaud
Cons: Serin 2
Pens: Serin 3
Drop Goal: Lopez
For South Africa:
Tries: Nkosi, Mbonambi
Cons: Pollard 2
Pens: Pollard 5