The SA U20’s overcame a committed French team in front of their home crowd to record a third successive victory and clinch a place in the JWC semi-finals.
The Baby Boks twice trailed in the match – and were matched for tries, three-all – but showed tremendous defensive commitment and character to resist a home nation desperate to record a victory, having already lost to England.
South Africa also had the cool head and accurate boot of Handré Pollard to thank for their eventual 26-19 win. Overcoming some poor form from the kicking tee in previous games, he kicked four from six, including an awkward penalty ten minutes from time.
South Africa made the perfect start, scoring a try within the first minute of play. Winning two rucks on the French 10-metre line before moving the ball wide to the right where centre Dries Swanepoel made a slashing break through some inept French defense from 35 metres and dummied his way to the line. Pollard missed the conversion.
The lead was short lived and the Boks suffered the novel experience of falling behind in a match in the championship for the first time. They were attempting a rare attack in the first half when Luther Obi’s ambitious reverse pass behind his back drifted forward into the hands of French flank Yacouba Camara. He freed centre Thibault Regard to bustle in from halfway. Enzo Selponi’s conversion gave France a one-point lead.
France had all the momentum – and were to retain it throughout the opening half, especially up front, where the Baby Boks took a hammering in the scrums, especially on Marné Coetzee’s tighthead side – but South Africa regained the lead in the 14th minute – the final score of the half. A typically mesmerising break by Cheslin Kolbe to the heart of the French defence, 35 metres out, saw his eventual tackler declining to roll away. Pollard made it 8-7.
More Kolbe brilliance allowed South Africa to begin the second half as they had the first. Within two minutes of the restart right wing Luther Obi dotted down in the corner after Kolbe’s shimmy and dart, concluding with a pass round the back of his tackler. It gave Obi a tip-toeing run down the touchline before planting the ball one handed as he was hustled into the corner flag.
Pollard’s kicking woes looked to be well behind him as he converted from the touchline and added a penalty two minutes later to make it 18-7.
However, the pattern of the first half continued and France scored their second try within seven minutes of the Junior Boks’ score. The defence was stretched right and then left where eighthman Marco Tauleigne held onto a fingertip pass from Camara to score in the corner. Selponi’s missed the conversion.
France’s scrum and maul continued to make inroads and a burst from hooker Christopher Tolofua followed up by loosehead Cyril Baille set up field position under the South African poles for Baptiste Serin to pick up and score from a ruck two metres out. The replacement scrumhalf converted his own try to give his team a one-point lead with 16 minutes remaining.
But France’s joy was short lived. Six minutes later South Africa set up field position with a lineout just outside the French 22 and when the home side infringed, Pollard coolly slotted a difficult kick.
South Africa controlled field position in the final ten minutes – playing some of their best rugby of the match – and it was fitting that another dazzling break from Kolbe should conclude the match. The fullback picked up from a ruck on the 22 and danced in untouched to complete a satisfactory evening for the Baby Boks.
Coach Dawie Theron praised his team for clinching a vital victory against a very committed French team.
“We knew that the French would be passionate and very committed because they had so much to play for. They were lifted by a fantastic crowd and gave it their all. However, I am proud of the effort by each of my players because the win is what matter most, and we deserved it in the end.
Theron added that he was not happy with the efforts in the scrums, and that his team will work hard in the next four days to correct their mistakes.
“We missed Luhan (de Bruin, suspended prop) and there was some puzzling calls made against us,” said Theron.
Junior Springbok captain, Ruan Steenkamp, said the ferocious French forward pack made it difficult for them to gain momentum.
“They disrupted us from the start and forced us into mistakes. We could not get the momentum that we wanted but we showed a lot of bravery and heart out there. We played much better towards the end, especially during the last ten minutes. I am just relieved that we managed to beat them because they are a dangerous team,” said Steenkamp.
New Zealand, South Africa, Wales and England have qualified for the Semi-Finals, which will take place in Vannes on June 18. New Zealand will meet England, and South Africa face Wales.
South Africa – Tries: Dries Swanepoel, Luther Obi, Cheslin Kolbe. Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (3).
France – Tries: Thibault Regard, Marco Tauleigne, Baptiste Serin. Conversions: Enzo Selponi, Serin.