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Boks somehow turn lost cause against England into World Cup final glory

Liam Del Carme Sports reporter
The Springboks' Pieter-Steph Du Toit celebrates after their victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup semifinal against England at Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night.
The Springboks' Pieter-Steph Du Toit celebrates after their victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup semifinal against England at Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night.
Image: David Rogers/Getty Images

Handré Pollard reprised his role from the 2019 Rugby World Cup semifinal win over Wales on Saturday night when he again nervelessly banged over a 76th-minute penalty to earn the Springboks a spot in the final of the game's show piece event.

With the Saturday night's semifinal in Paris firmly in the balance Pollard, who came onto the field as a 30th-minute substitute for Manie Libbok, converted a long-range penalty to earn the Springboks a come-from-behind 16-15 win over England.

It was quite a turnaround as the Boks were staring down the barrel just a few minutes earlier.

It was a tense and tantalising semifinal with the Boks turning things around late in the game thanks to a dominant scrum. Props Ox Nche and Vincent Koch proved their worth off the bench.

For most of the match, however, the Bok cause looked lost.

The wet ball was like the Webb Ellis Cup slipping from the defending champions' grasp.

It was England who came to grips with the greasy ball and the occasion. They, given the conditions, stood to profit more from applying a narrow focus and they did so with aplomb.

It was a night for high stakes and the high ball and it was England who rose to the occasion for the first hour. Fullback Freddie Steward, in for the nimble-footed Marcus Smith, took command of just about everything sent in his direction and the error-ridden Boks did not have enough variation in their game to put England under sustained pressure.

The pressure points they usually bring to bear on their opponents all short-circuited in the wet, except their scrum. It was only after the hour mark that the Boks turned the tide and they channelled their energy through the scrum, an area that again proved England's Achilles Heel.

Earlier, though, it was a struggle for the Boks.

When they had possession they hardly held onto the ball to pose genuine questions of the England defence.

England bossed the Boks at the breakdown. Flank Tom Curry was impeccable for the Roses while No 8 Ben Earl lived up to his reputation.

Both teams brought a siege mentality into this game and the steady drizzle over the Stade de France added to the downbeat, 'look how wet we are' theme.

When the names of Owen Farrell and Eben Etzebeth boomed through the public address system before the match it drew a raucous response. It, perhaps, said a lot of how these teams are perceived by the world.

England and South Africa came into this match keen to remind that they don't exist for the pleasure of a wide audience.

In the build-up to the clash South Africa's director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was again prolific on Twitter. Given his misadventures on that platform, he'd be better off treating it like a long lost X.

He is always alert to sniff out perceived injustices, seeking points around which to rally his team. He knows it is never difficult to find one when you trawl social media.

He did not say so in so many words this week, but the Springboks are not out to win popularity contests.

England pretty much embraced their unloved status. Even those in the stands with a red rose on their chest had to be convinced.

To be fair, England in toil, commitment and general willingness to apply shoulder to the wheel stole the march on the Boks.

Early on, England were assertive and alert. The hunger to contest for every morsel of possession appeared to find resonance with England.

The Courtney Lawes lunge for the ball to turn over possession to earn England a third shot at goal was perhaps a prime example of South Africa's failure to take command of the wet, and England's obsession to get their hands on it.

Furious early exchanges after some high balls drew a penalty for England. Farrell drew first blood and after England won another mini battle soon after Swing Low Sweet Chariot was heard on the northern end of the stadium.

The Bok maul was often repelled and England appeared to have done their homework.

The Boks had it all to do.

The failure of the Boks to make headway upfront had a knock-on effect. Libbok, was replaced by Pollard after half an hour and while there were gasps around the ground, that was perhaps in the Bok brains trust's thinking from the start.

By the 50th minute, with England winning more mini battles Swing Low was delivered with even more gusto. When Kurt-Lee Arendse was barged into the turf after collecting a high ball, it rang out again and soon after Farrell's near-50m drop came like a dagger blow to the Boks.

But they showed marvellous resolve.

The Boks earned a potentially crucial scrum penalty in the 60th minute when they were defending five metres from their own goalline.

Another scrum penalty in the 64th minute helped alleviate pressure. A third in quick succession gave them favourable field position and it was from there that they peeled away from a potential maul with RG Snyman dotting down.

It helped set the stage for Pollard who did not disappoint as the Boks set up a final against old foes New Zealand.

Scorers

England (12) 15 — Penalties: Owen Farrell (4). Drop goal: Farrell.

South Africa (6) 16 — Try: RG Snyman. Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Manie Libbok, Pollard (2).