Champions find a way to win, even when getting hammered. The Springboks were those champions in Paris on Sunday night, writes Mark Keohane.
Hosts France were furious in how they attacked the breakdown, fearless in the collisions and colossal in contact. Never have I seen this particular set of Springboks take such a beating in the collisions.
But these Boks are not defending champions by chance. They are also not British & Irish Lions series winners by default.
These Bok champions can scrap, hustle and scramble. They also refuse to go away, no matter how much heat gets applied.
France were stunning in an opening half that saw both teams score three tries. They edged the scoreboard 22-19 at halftime but all the momentum was with the home team. They were rampant and they could have set up a tent in the Bok half, such was the time they spent there. At one stage they had 73 percent territory and after 83 minutes the territorial advantage was 63 percent. They also had 75 percent possession for most of the match, with this number reduced to 60 percent at the final whistle.
The French had 51 successes at the gainline, compared with the Boks’s 21, and they starved the Boks of set-piece comfort by limiting the urge to kick for touch. The Boks had just four line outs in the match, with two of them messy and disrupted on the contest and just one meaningful line-out drive. The Boks also had just five scrums feeds, with France putting the ball in seven times.
Both teams were incredibly disciplined, with a shared penalty count of six each, and the Boks, in particular, maintained a calm in their defensive decision-making when a calamity would have been understandable with wave after wave of sustained French attack.
France controlled where the game was played and their ferocity at the breakdown also meant they dictated the tempo.
But what they could not control was the heart of the Springboks and a mentality that simply was not going to give up the title won in Japan four years ago.
The majority of the match 23 played in the 2019 World Cup and this experience showed. Duane Vermeulen was big in so many different areas and plays. Jesse Kriel hunted with defensive acumen and desire, while wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse chased everything, every time the ball went up into heavens and each time they had to turn to defensively scramble.
France Mostert, starting at lock, made 14 tackles before being substituted in the 44th minute. Eben Etzebeth, yellow carded for an accidental head collision, produced a work rate that was more machine than human and Deon Fourie, all 37 years of him, doubled as flanker and hooker in his 37 minute effort.
Kolbe’s charge down of Thomas Ramos’s two-point conversion, with the scores tied 12-all, would statistically prove the difference in the Boks one point win, but this was a match in which the statistics could never tell the story of the night.
This wasn’t a match won because of any game play statistic by the Boks and it was not lost because of a lack of game play statistics from the French. This was a match won because a champion had been to the dark alleys before and knew a way back. France, the challenger, could not quite find their way home when the Boks’ defence swarmed in those frantic final few minutes.
Handre Pollard also produced the big penalty kick moment after Kwagga Smith and Deon Fourie had combined for the most significant of South Africa’s three turnovers won.
Pollard’s 52 metre penalty gave the Boks a four point cushion at 29-25 with less than eight minutes to play. France got three back but they couldn’t get back the two points lost from the Ramos charge down.
Just like New Zealand, at the same venue 24 hours earlier, had fashioned the most improbable win in defending 37 phases of Irish attack in the final four minutes, the Boks were able to subdue a French team that played well enough to destroy most teams.
Only this Boks team is not most teams. They are a team of champions, whose strength, in mind and heart, is immeasurable.