15 October 2007
South Africa and Argentina, the last unbeaten teams at the Rugby World Cup, met in the semifinals in Paris on Sunday evening in a clash of two very physical sides. It was a hard-fought contest, but the Springboks took advantage of the Pumas’ errors to pull away to a 37-13 victory, and book a place in the final.
The game proved to be a tactical battle, with both teams determined to play in the opposition’s half. Ultimately, the Argentinians shaded the duel for territory, but the South Africans managed to staunch most of the Pumas’ attacking forays by turning over the ball with regularity.
John Smit’s men defended well, keeping their shape throughout the match, and they kept their composure better than their opponents, especially when tempers started to fray towards the end of the encounter.
South Africa’s solid defence led to the Pumas making a number of decisions that cost them dearly as they tried to breach the unyielding line of green and gold. Twice Argentinian passes were intercepted – one early on and one late in the game – leading to Springbok tries.
There will be some concern about the tight scrums where the famous Puma bajada held sway, but the Boks countered with a domination of the lineouts, securing their own ball cleanly, and robbing Argentina of a good number of throw-ins. In a kicking game, it was this superiority that played a vital role in South Africa’s victory.
It had been expected that the Springboks would qualify to face France in the final, but England produced a second upset victory, following their win over Australia in the quarterfinals, downing the French 14-9 to put themselves in with a chance of becoming the first side to successfully defend the World Cup title.
South Africa and England had faced off in a pool match earlier in the tournament, with the Boks dominating the champions as they scored a very impressive 36-0 victory. England coach Brian Ashton reckons that was the turning point for his team who, he says, have finally found their form.
Come the final, the result of the pool game will count for nothing. The Springboks need to defeat England for a second time to become World Cup champions 12 years after they first claimed the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
From the kick off, Argentina tried to move the ball through their hands, maybe as a result of seeing Fiji have some success with their running game against the Boks in the quarterfinals. However, South Africa stood firm, although the Pumas were playing mostly in the Springboks’ half of the field.
With seven minutes gone, Argentina cleared the ball from a ruck just outside the Springboks’ 22-metre area. They passed it to the left, down the backline, but SA scrumhalf Fourie du Preez anticipated the pass and raced in to intercept the ball.
From 70 metres out, he sprinted clear of the despairing defenders, diving over to the left of the uprights to score the first points of the contest.
Percy Montgomery struck the conversion perfectly to put South Africa into a 7-0 lead.
Two minutes later, Argentina’s flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez tried a drop goal but, forced onto his left boot, he failed to make good contact with the ball and his effort came nowhere near the uprights.
After a quarter of an hour, however, the Pumas opened their account after captain John Smit had conceded a penalty for obstructing his opposite number Agustin Pichot. Felipe Contepomi slotted the kick to make the score 7-3.
Two minutes later, the gap was back to seven points when Montgomery knocked over a penalty for the Boks.
It took another 15 minutes for the score to change and it came about when South Africa made Argentina pay for conceding possession.
A massive pass from Francois Steyn moved the ball from the left to the right of the field, with a number of players lined up to attack the Pumas’ defenders.
Brian Habana was given some space on the left flank and he cleverly chipped over the defence with his left foot. Flying past the defenders, he caught the ball after it sat up invitingly for him and outpaced the cover defence to score.
Montgomery, who kicked beautifully throughout the game, added the extras to increase South Africa’s lead to 17-3.
Then, with halftime just around the corner, the Boks forced a turnover in midfield. Francois Steyn made a little ground before passing to Jaque Fourie. His quick pass found Schalk Burger and the flanker neatly passed over the top of the defender to Danie Rossouw, who found himself in space.
The big number-eight pinned his ears back and raced for the tryline to dot down SA’s third try of the half.
Once again, Montgomery kicked the conversion and South Africa led 24-6 as the whistle sounded for the end of the half.
It was a healthy lead, but the Pumas were determined to make inroads when the second half got under way. They immediately started dominating possession and territory, forcing the South Africans onto the defensive.
With five minutes played, Manuel Contepomi received the ball in some space and cut back inside to dive over the line.
It wasn’t clear, however, whether he had grounded the ball or not and the decision was referred to the television match official, Tony Spreadbury.
At first, it appeared that Contepomi had scored, but a view from a different angle clearly showed he had lost possession of the ball.
Inexplicably, though, Spreadbury decided that a try had been scored. It was, to say the least, a baffling and awful decision.
Pumas draw closer
Felipe Contepomi nailed the conversion to make the score 24-13 and it seemed that a fight back from the Pumas was on the cards.
More Argentinian pressure failed to break the Springboks defences, but the Pumas did manage to win a penalty with 53 minutes played. Contepomi was wide with his kick and the score remained unchanged.
Slowly but surely, South Africa fought their way out of their territory. Then, with only nine minutes to go, Pichot was penalised for going offsides at a scrum. His positioning at the set piece had been questionable throughout the match and referee Steve Walsh finally pinged the scrumhalf.
Montgomery, solid as always, kicked the three-pointer to increase South Africa’s lead to 27-13.
With only five minutes to go, the fullback added another three points to take the Springboks beyond two scores, with their lead up to 17 points at 27-13.
The Pumas needed a try and, from the restart, they immediately attempted to run with the ball. Brian Habana, an true artist at intercepting the ball, read Argentina’s attack perfectly and as the ball was passed in his direction ran onto it and sprinted clear to score under the posts.
It was his second try of the match and his eighth of the World Cup, taking the speedster into a tie with the great Jonah Lomu for the most tries scored in a single World Cup.
Montgomery’s seventh successful kick of the match took South Africa into an unassailable 37-13 lead.
With two minutes to play, Juan Smith was yellow-carded for a high tackle and both teams got into some pushing and shoving.
Referee Walsh warned Schalk Burger and Felipe Contepomi to calm down, but the Puma centre didn’t heed the warning as he, stupidly, threw a fist at Bismarck du Plessis only moments later and was sent off.
Shortly afterwards the final blew and the Springboks had booked their place in the final of rugby’s biggest tournament.
Now, only 80 minutes of focused play remains, and the prize that awaits the Boks, should they beat England again, is a second World Cup title.