Cape Town – A series of second-half positional shake-ups was required to engineer a Springbok jail-break (29-26) deep into stoppage time against France in Paris on Saturday night.
The Boks, in their always questionable initial team structure – especially as far as the second row and loose-forward alliance were concerned – produced one of their most sterile “first forties” of the season as they deservedly trailed 16-9 at the interval.
But a plethora of vital personnel changes by Rassie Erasmus, which frankly spared the national coach his own blushes, nearer the business end of the dramatic but often low-grade Test match made the all-important difference.
These included the manna-from-heaven step of returning Pieter-Steph du Toit from reasonably unfamiliar No 4 lock to the blindside flank in the 49th minute (big RG Snyman entered the fray at lock), simultaneously allowing Duane Vermeulen to shift from seven to eight in place of the willing enough but less physically assertive Warren Whiteley.
Almost immediately, the Boks stopped being bullied, in several senses, in the tight-loose and began clawing back traction in the expected, floodlit arm-wrestle.
But they also looked an altogether more dangerous crew with the further infusions off the bench of Francois Louw, Elton Jantjies (deadeye place-kicker Handre Pollard moving to inside centre) and Bongi Mbonambi … the last-named player notched the home hearts-breaking winning try off a rolling maul in the 85th minute.
This was no classic showing from the Boks, yet it snapped a two-game losing streak and was also the kind of match that will stand them in good stead at the World Cup for the way they were able to retain composure to the death, despite a lot of things not working for them.
Here’s how I rated the Boks at Stade de France:
Willie le Roux: 5
Not one of the talisman’s better Test matches. Few opportunities to work any attacking magic, and he wasn’t too commanding a figure on defence, where Bok back-three organisation and positional acumen looked generally suspect.
S’bu Nkosi: 5.5
Certainly tried hard to be combative, but an up-and-down performance. Beaten to a high ball near his own line seconds before Mathieu Bastareaud’s try, but swiftly made amends with his own, smartly-finished dot-down two minutes later.
Jesse Kriel: 6
The Boks were so obsessed with box kicking that the outside centre didn’t get many quality ball-in-hand chances. When he did, he sometimes made strong yardage, and his defence was largely unblinking as well.
Damian de Allende: 5
Failed to produce the energy displayed a week earlier at Twickenham, and missed a few tackles. Hauled off with just under 15 minutes left.
Aphiwe Dyantyi: 5.5
Lively and predatory, as has become customary. He was nearly the match-winner as the final pass to him in the 83rd minute in his corner “try” was ruled just forward. But he does continue to be coaxed off his defensive line too easily, causing Bok trauma on the scramble.
Handre Pollard: 7
Cool-headed showing, even if much of the tactical kicking was dominated by his halfback partner. His place-kicking was flawless, though, as his five penalties and two conversions (19 points) made a massive difference in the final analysis. Promising when he shifted to No 12, into bargain.
Faf de Klerk: 4
Stays an enigmatic factor, as this was one of those “off” days for the little dynamo who has otherwise been so sprightly for much of 2018. Absurd over-emphasis on box kicking (though under instruction?) and many were misdirected. Unusual defensive indecision in French hooker Guilhem Guirado’s try.
Warren Whiteley: 5
“Not a big factor in the game” was the verdict from former Bok No 8 and coach Nick Mallett, which was about right. Made some tackles and put occasional pressure on French lineout, but little oomph otherwise.
Duane Vermeulen: 7.5
Was going well at flank too, but clearly enjoyed switching back to more familiar eighth-man in second half. Put his body on the line in trademark fashion, which was essential on a night where the French pack was right up for it. Won a turnover penalty, and relished putting in some thumping hits on home backline muscle-man Bastareaud.
Siya Kolisi: 4.5
This tour’s increasingly looking a journey too far for an overworked (including from Super Rugby) Bok skipper this year. Another subdued personal showing, and even his leadership wasn’t as animated as it might have been. Leaked a penalty or two, though stole a French lineout.
Franco Mostert: 7
His restoration to the middle of the lineout, including as manager, paid dividends in a department the Boks had been pretty awful at in the England loss. Lost one ball in contact, but was also at the fulcrum of the key maul that led to Mbonambi’s game-tilting late try.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: 7.5
Did a decent job as front lock … but then really came into his own when shifted to side of scrum. Topped Bok tackle count with another high-teens figure, even if he missed a couple, but it was the strength of some of his hits that was lethal. One clattering effort from a kick-off directly led to Nkosi’s try. Must stay at flank now … surely?
Frans Malherbe: 6
Bok front row would have been disappointed with relative lack of scrums … certainly including the tighthead, who looked threatening enough when they did get to pack down.
Malcolm Marx: 6.5
The big thing with the Bok hooker this week was how impressively he banished his London throwing-in “yips”. Made one storming run (though he might have tried harder to find someone to offload to) and worked hard in contestation on the deck.
Steven Kitshoff: 6
A little bit of the edge seems to have gone from his often commanding game, especially when it comes to carrying. But rock-solid in the miserly scrum opportunities.
Francois Louw and Elton Jantjies: 7.5
These two were the pick of the bunch, although Mbonambi also shone (including keeping his cool on the maul that led to his decisive try) in his modest 10 minutes on the park. Louw was immediately a huge factor over the ball at open-side flank, including a steal deep in Bok territory that helped work their way back up the park when all seemed lost late on, and Jantjies was refreshingly dangerous on the front foot for almost quarter of an hour at pivot.
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