France v Springboks: Champions to end hosts’ World Cup hopes in do-or-die classic

Jared Wright
Image split in five including France captain Antoine Dupont, flanker Charles Ollivon, centre includes Springboks fullback Damian Willemse, right side South Africa scrum-half Cobus Reinach and captain Siya Kolisi.

Our big preview of the crunch Rugby World Cup quarter-final between France and South Africa.

A clash of cosmic proportions awaits us as Rugby World Cup hosts, France, battle it out against the defending champions, South Africa, for a place in the tournament’s semi-finals.

By the end of Sunday evening, two of the best four teams in the world will have been knocked out of the World Cup, with Ireland v New Zealand claiming one victim and this fixture the other.

France breezed through their pool stage after defeating the All Blacks 27-13 in the competition’s opening game. A largely changed starting XV then secured a bonus-point win over Uruguay before they crushed Namibia and Italy to top the group.

Meanwhile, the Springboks nullified Scotland in their opening game, claiming a largely comfortable 18-3 win, keeping the Scots try-less. Jacques Nienaber’s side then went on to romp past Romania (76-0) and lost 13-8 to Ireland in the match of the pool stages. The Boks secured their place in the quarter-finals when they beat Tonga 46-18 and now face the biggest challenge of their title defence.

Much of what makes this game so intriguing is the vast similarities in the style of play of the two heavyweight nations. Both sides have incredibly abrasive and physical packs that pride themselves on set-piece excellence. They both have excellent open-play kicking games and backs that are extremely difficult to subdue, whether they are running over the top of the defence or around it.

This is bound to be a stunning show of brutality and flair played out in one of rugby’s greatest cathedrals, the Stade de France, as two titans of the game collide, giving their all to remain in the fight for the title.

Where the game will be won

Much like the South Africa-Ireland game, this promises to be a combative onslaught in every single facet of the game. Both sides will go hammer and tong at one another, with every battleground hotly contested.

The set-pieces will be crucial, the breakdown too, gain line even more so and let’s not forget the accuracy off the tee. But the main battleground has to be the kicking duel, which will filter into the other facets of the game. You will struggle to find a better kicking team in World Rugby than France, and they make use of it regularly. France have the lowest possession time of the eight remaining teams as they were happy to kick the ball away in a territorial battle, which they often won. When the opposition kicked poorly, they were quick to make the most of it with a clinical counter-kick or a lethal counterattack, often resulting in a try.

Last year, South Africa employed a possessional-based counter-tactic with the likes of Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse running it back at the French defence, and it almost worked. Dictating where the game is played on the pitch is crucial to both teams, who have superb defences, so gaining any advantage from the boot will be key.

Last time they met

What they said

Springboks assistant coach Felix Jones looked back to the incredible atmosphere the last fixture between the two sides produced and said that both teams will have taken a lot from that match.

“Both teams learnt a lot. It was an incredible match, the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Jones said.

“The physicality levels were incredible. Both teams really played well on the night and at the end of it, it was one score that divided the teams.

“I am sure both teams will come up with plans to do something slightly different or do again whatever was effective in that game and vice-versa, the other team trying to counteract that. It’s going to be really interesting.”

France noted that the last clash was ‘chaos’ and Jones believes that Sunday’s game will be no different.

“I expect so,” he said. “When the top teams in the world – the top five, six seven or top eight teams – play each other, those test matches just becomes hard to think with the noise, the level of collision, the speed at which the game is going.

“The consequences of doing something well or poorly, I very much expect it to be the same.”

Meanwhile, France forwards coach William Servat commented on the physicality aspect of the fixture.

“There are always matches where the commitment is incredible,” the former hooker said.

“Take Portugal, a team that showed everyone that our sport is a fighting sport. As long as the spirit of our team is there and the players are willing to make sacrifices, these teams can do incredible things. Every nation knows how difficult it will be when they play South Africa.

“South Africa are a team that make a mark, a big and strong team. They cultivate this and bring a physical dimension that makes it difficult for teams playing them. The French team, with our Latin side and our pride, our players were able to rise to the challenge not long ago in Marseille.

“We’re preparing for this kind of thing, and the match will be of a rare intensity, as it was in November. I hope the medical staff [on duty] are ready, because players were queuing up for the concussion protocol [last time]. One thing’s for sure, the French will rise to the enormous challenge.”

Servat also commented on Rassie Erasmus’ remarks accusing the French players of simulation to buy penalties.

“I don’t think there’s a lot to interpret,” Servat said.

“Rassie is well versed in this kind of exercise. We know the intensity South Africa bring to a match. We know how tough they can be. I have no interpretation to make of what he said. What’s important is to make sure our players are prepared.”

Players to watch

France winger Damian Penaud is chasing history as he is just two scores away from equalling Jonah Lomu’s benchmark of eight tries in a single Rugby World Cup campaign. The elusive speedster has been sensational from the start of the tournament and leads the remaining eight nations in numerous statistics, namely running metres (355), line breaks (11) and defenders beaten (21). The Springboks will be keen to keep him as quiet as possible, which is no easy task. He seemingly has a knack for creating something out of nothing, and his trademark chip and chase is near impossible to predict, never mind defend. If there is even a quarter of a chance to score, it’s likely Penaud is going to take it.

Jonathan Danty was sorely missed for France in their tournament opener against New Zealand, but he hit back emphatically with simply sensational performances against Namibia and Italy. While Les Bleus were comfortably the better side in both matches, Danty showed his class and did not let his standard slip despite the weaker opposition. The rampaging inside centre is unbelievably difficult to bring to the ground, especially when he has built up some speed, and is effectively a fourth back-rower for France with his stellar breakdown work – in fact, no other French player has bettered his tally of three clean breakdown turnovers. Again, he has impressed against weaker opponents but has produced similar, even better, performances against the best in the business.

The stand-in captain, while Antoine Dupont was sidelined, Charles Ollivon, has gone from strength to strength since his return to the Test set-up following the injury that saw him lose the captaincy. There aren’t many, if any, shortcomings in the influential back-rower’s game. He is a lineout general of the highest order and is equally as impressive on the opponent’s ball. With the ball in hand, he is not elusive but abrasive too and runs smart running lines to get on the end of try-scoring opportunities. The man does not stop working and often ends matches as France’s top carrier and tackles alongside the brilliant Gregory Alldritt.

Last year Eben Etzebeth notched up his 100th Test cap for the Springboks, and while some players start to decline at this stage, the world-class second-rower has only got better. He is an absolute nightmare to contain for any opposition as he relentlessly contests possession in every facet of the game. He is easily one of the best defensive lineout jumpers in the world, and if you manage to beat him in the air, his ability to stall and destroy mauls is uncanny. Around the park, he is constantly winning collisions on both sides of the ball and is always applying pressure to the kicks with his attempted charge downs. Quite simply, he is a generational talent and will be raring to get stuck into the French pack.

It’s been a rather quiet Rugby World Cup for the Springboks’ superstar winger, Cheslin Kolbe, who has a knack for producing match-winning moments in the big games. The 2019 Rugby World Cup-winning flyer has not had a poor tournament, but with such a big game coming up, he will be eager to take whatever chances come his way, something he is more than capable of doing. The fleet-footed Bok has an incredible turn of pace and is a key cog in South Africa’s defensive set-up. Expect him to be back at his absolute best this weekend.

We can’t talk about the kickers, and it will be crucial for the Springboks that Manie Libbok and Handre Pollard are at their absolute best on Sunday in what promises to be an incredibly tight fixture. Libbok has struggled off the tee in the build-up to and during the tournament but looked to have rediscovered his accuracy against Tonga. Meanwhile, Pollard was brought into the squad following the injury to Malcolm Marx and had a solid 40-minute shift against Tonga to ease concerns over his fitness.

Main head-to-head

Antoine Dupont and Cobus Reinach are pivotal players in both set-ups, and their accuracy and ability to influence the game on Sunday will be a huge deciding factor as to who will proceed to the semi-finals.

Dupont returns following the facial fracture he suffered against Namibia in the pool stages, and the superb scrum-half had already shown his world-class credentials up until that point. His playmaking ability meant that the likes of Penaud, Danty and Matthieu Jalibert profited immensely, while his kicking off both feet was another huge asset.

Meanwhile, the Springboks sprung a surprise by including Reinach over Faf de Klerk for the crunch clash. There is no doubt about Reinach’s quality, and his selection in the starting XV is an indication of the Springboks wanting a fast start against France. While his speed and attacking prowess is often lauded, his kicking game is cruelly underrated.

De Klerk has been the more regular starter for the Boks in the past, but Reinach has not disappointed when given the opportunity, with notable wins over the British and Irish Lions, England, Australia and Argentina.

The Boks will have taken lessons from the All Blacks’ loss to France where Aaron Smith was largely successful in nullifying Dupont by hassling and hustling the Les Bleus skipper. However, when Smith departed the pitch, the floodgates opened, and Dupont thrived. Applying pressure on the mercurial number nine is key, and Reinach and De Klerk will be key to doing that for a full 80 minutes.

The two well-rounded scrum-halves will both need to be on top of their games, with the battle up front likely to be largely even; their decision-making, kicking, game management and calmness will go a long way in deciding the outcome.

Prediction

This one is impossible to call. There is not much separating the two world-class outfits. Discipline will undoubtedly be key, especially in the sense of keeping all 15 players on each team on the park. The French have the added motivation of the cheering and jeering fans, but with that comes the additional pressure. Either way, it is bound to come down to one and score or the bounce of the ball, with this writer predicting it will go the men in green’s way with the Boks winning by three.

Previous results

2022: France won 30-26 in Marseille
2018: South Africa won 29-26 in Paris
2017: South Africa won 18-17 in Paris
2017: South Africa won 35-12 in Johannesburg
2017: South Africa won 37-15 in Durban
2017: South Africa won 37-14 in Pretoria
2013: South Africa won 19-10 in Paris
2010: South Africa won 42-17 in Cape Town
2009: France won 20-13 in Toulouse

The teams

France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Louis Bielle-Biarrey, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Anthony Jelonch, 5 Thibaud Flmanet, 4 Cameron Woki, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Francois Cros, 21 Sekou Macalou, 22 Maxime Lucu, 23 Yoram Moefana

South Africa:15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Handre Pollard, 23 Willie le Roux

Date: Sunday, October
Venue: Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Kick-off: 21:00 local (20:00 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)

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