A Saturday full of rugby came to an end in Marseille as France hosted South Africa. A hugely physical start saw Faf de Klerk’s early offside give Thomas Ramos an early kick from range, which he despatched with ease for a 3-0 lead. With Willie le Roux back in at 15, South Africa were looking much more comfortable than last week, but things became much harder after 11 minutes as Pieter-Steph du Toit was sent off for a dangerous clean-out to the head of Jonathan Danty. As both teams continued to look to play positive rugby, a turnover by Charles Ollivon caught Kwagga Smith offside for Ramos to double the lead, while the World Champions found their lineout reliability taking a huge hit, and when France finally found themselves with possession in the visitors’ 22, Cyril Baille managed to force himself over from close range. While the French were starting to take hold of the game, they were struggling to deal with the Springboks’ driving maul, and one such maul earned the visitors a penalty just inside the French half which Cheslin Kolbe kicked to put them on the board after 25 minutes, while the next one 5 minutes later saw Siya Kolisi break out as it collapsed to go over for a try without any tackler even getting close. As the half came to a close, Ox Nche was penalised for not rolling away, and Ramos successfully bisected the posts for a 16-10 lead at the break.
Another penalty from Kolbe cut the lead to 3 soon after the restart, but when Faf de Klerk failed to effectively clear his lines under pressure from Cameron Woki, a mighty French maul allowed Thomas Ramos to almost immediately take the lead back out to 6. What had already been a crazy game then took it’s next massive twist, as Antoine Dupont was given a red card for taking out Cheslin Kolbe in the air just 8 minutes into the half, and after a series of penalties in the corner, the South African forwards attacked infield and then he ball went back blind for Willie le Roux to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the corner, de Klerk kicking the conversion (having taken over kicking duties while Kolbe underwent a HIA) to put the Boks ahead, before kicking a penalty minutes later. France hit back with a Ramos penalty just before the hour. As both sides emptied the benches going into the final half hour, Maxime Lucu and Sekou Macalou just combined to force Kurt-Lee Arendse into touch as he went hunting another try, but the French wing was pinged moments later for getting back to his feet when held, and with both de Klerk and Kolbe off the pitch, Damian Willemse found he target with his penalty. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, South African replacement Deon Fourie was sent to the bin for an offence at the French maul, while Romain Ntamack made way for Mathieu Jalibert, but it was the forwards who put France back ahead, as their siege on the try line saw Sipili Falatea pushed over the line with a pick and go, but a first miss of the night from Ramos left them with just a 1-point lead with 5 minutes remaining. As the clock ticked down, a huge scrum from the French against the depleted Springbok pack allowed Thomas Ramos to kick the lead to 4 points. South Africa secured the restart, but a crucial turnover from Yoram Moefana won the ball back for Les Bleus and they held out for the final 30 seconds for a 30-26 victory.
One thing that will likely have Fabien Galthié a little worried will be just how effective the Springboks maul was. Despite being a (very big!) man down, the Springboks were making France look like Japan, such was the ease they were making metres with the maul.
Now granted this isn’t France’s ideal pack (or biggest, with players like Paul Willemse missing) and the sheer number or injury-enforced changes made early on won’t have helped, but these were not fringe players packing down against the Springboks and being made to look they they were facing a team 2-3 age grades above them. As the game went on, the French pack had some success themselves with the driving maul, but they still looked at risk whenever the visitors were setting the maul.
France have a wonderful all-round team, but teams with big physical packs will look at those maul and perhaps see a chink in the French armour. The good news is, with almost a year still to go, there is still plenty of time to work on this.
Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way
Is there anybody more underrated in Test rugby than Willie le Roux. Often panned online by fans, and continually looking to be replaced by the coaches, the experienced fullback continues to show his quality when given the chance.
Granted he isn’t the best defensively, but what he does is so vital to the Springboks attack, as he plays the second playmaker role, comfortably coming in at first or second receiver depending on the phase and what the team are looking to do, while when he takes the ball around the 13 channel, there are very few players who will time the simple pass tot he winger so perfectly while making it look so easy.
Right now, South Africa have a serious issue at fly half, but it is notable just how much less of an issue this is when le Roux is there to assist them, as he takes so much pressure off of them and allows them to focus on what they do best—a perfect example being how last week Damian Willemse’s runs with the ball brought the attack to a standstill, while this week they looked like a way to draw in defenders and look for a gap to exploit.
So go ahead and keep hating him, he may just be the difference between defending the World Cup or losing in the quarterfinals.