Following South Africa’s 16-15 victory over England, here are our five takeaways from a thrilling Rugby World Cup semi-final in Paris.
The top line
Handre Pollard kicked England out of the Rugby World Cup in a thrilling and bruising encounter at the Stade de France as a penalty in the dying minutes saw the Springboks move on to a second successive final. With remarkable symmetry, they overcame northern hemisphere opposition by a single point in consecutive weeks on the same ground with the same referee.
It was the cruellest of outcomes for Steve Borthwick’s men, who dominated the collisions, set-piece and breakdown for fully 60 minutes, and it was only the sheer depth of the South African bench and the drop-off between England‘s starting and finishing props that turned the match in the Springboks‘ favour.
Written off before the tournament, criticised as lucky on account of the draw by all quarters, England will have found new respect from all in the sport today, putting the teeth back into their forward pack and the credibility back into their rugby culture.
But South Africa’s love affair with the World Cup continues, and their sheer refusal to allow themselves to be beaten sets them aside, as they meet New Zealand in Paris next Saturday.
For those wondering which version of England would turn up in Paris tonight, they answered your questions loud and clearly – the very best they could muster. The forward display was something not seen by an England pack in a long, long time – up against the very best in the world, not a backward step was taken, and many forward ones were evident, especially during an epic first half.
The battle was compelling, and England rose to the occasion; Courtney Lawes led the charge with an absolutely world-class display on the blindside flank, his try-saving jackal in the first half underling his brilliant performance. Alongside him, George Martin announced his arrival on the international scene with a tireless display of powerful ruckwork and absolutely melting tackles, his rip-off Franco Mostert underlining England meant business. The young Leicester tyro has a bit of Martin Johnson about him, and it’s no wonder his stock at Tigers has risen so high so quickly.
With Dan Cole and Joe Marler banishing memories of 2019 scrum time and Tom Curry battling like a bloodied warrior, this was a forward display to be proud of and something to build upon into the next cycle of World Cups and beyond, but as the starters tired, so fresh legs changed the game in the favour of South Africa, but England can be mighty proud of their effort.
🗣️ "Itoje's best England performance for some time. Stopped South Africa from gaining any traction at the maul and won a couple of turnovers." #ENGvRSA
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) October 21, 2023
Backs join party
But it wasn’t only the forwards – Freddie Steward’s display in the Paris rain was nothing short of heroic, and little moments everywhere underlined England’s physicality – Elliot Daly’s hit on Duane Vermeulen was something he’ll remember for a long time, whilst England’s centres hit everything that moved in green.
Even Jonny May joined the party, quietly delivering not a coruscating display with ball in hand but a phenomenal one of defensive acumen and steel.
However, one man answered every question and every criticism of him that’s come his way for four long years – England’s captain Owen Farrell stood on the bridge of his ship and simply refused to yield.
Had England closed the match out, it would have a career-defining performance, one that was so typical of the mighty Saracen, a display that was reminiscent of Jonny Wilkinson on the same ground in the same round of the World Cup some 16 years ago. Perhaps now the South African fan base, his biggest detractors, might just realise what a hell of a player Farrell is.
Ox Nche is an unlikely hero, but the difference he made when he came onto the picture of the South African scrum after Marler and Cole had drained their resources was quite remarkable. We always knew South Africa went deep off the bench, and alongside the mighty Sharks loosehead, RG Snyman, Kwagga Smith and the peerless Willie le Roux all played a huge part in South Africa’s change-up.
But it was the scrummage work that did the damage; Ellis Genge failed to cope with the huge pressure from Vincent Koch and conceded two crucial penalties buckling under pressure. England might have counted themselves particularly unlucky not to have gained one back when Kyle Sinckler looked to have finally bettered Nche close to the Bok line, but the referee went with the picture he’d seen previously, and Sinckler conceded.
With Manie Libbok struggling, Rassie Erasmus acted decisively and yanked the inexperienced Test 10 off the pitch for Pollard’s greater accuracy to give South Africa a little more control.
There’s no doubt the Boks got out of jail courtesy of their bench, with Pollard slightly surprisingly named as Player of the Match, but there’s little doubt this win is down to the work his replacement forwards did off the bench, and in particular, that diminutive prop from Bloemfontein, Nche.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) October 21, 2023
Although it might have been a slightly harder route than predicted, the Springboks move forward to meet New Zealand, a side they annihilated a month ago at Twickenham, whilst England will play Argentina in the Bronze final on Friday, just reward for an exceptional campaign.
South Africa will be odds on to win that match, but in doing so, they will have to move their attack a long way forward from what we saw in Paris on Saturday.
Put simply, New Zealand score a lot of points, and the Boks struggled against England to get through a quite brilliant defence. With the All Blacks also having one more day of recovery, it’s all to play for, and this final might just be a little closer than the game in August in London.