South Africa 37 Fiji 20: Pietersen saves the day after Fiji take Boks to the brink

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The Independent Online

This is getting ridiculous. Or rather, it was getting ridiculous – gloriously ridiculous – until one of the lower-profile Springboks, the wing JP Pietersen, made a beeline for the Fiji lock Ifereimi Rawaqa and wrestled him over the touch-in-goal line. But for that one tackle, the Springboks might have gone the same way as their Tri-Nations brethren from Australia and New Zealand. That is to say, they might have gone home. In a World Cup blessed with major shocks, this would have been the most seismic of all.

Having been ferociously tested for 40-plus minutes by Samoa and been given a significant scare by Tonga, the South Africans found themselves at serious risk of a quarter-final defeat by the most powerful of the South Seas rugby nations. For 15 minutes or so either side of the hour mark, Fiji's back-line runners cut lines, offloaded from tackles and opened up the Bokke defence almost at will. Vilimoni Delasau scored a chip-and-chase try and Sireli Bobo completed a move of considerable majesty, featuring as it did varying acts of brilliance from Seremaia Bai, Norman Ligairi and Mosese Rauluni, the little scrum-half and captain who will never play a better match in his life. Panic stations? You could say.

Bobo's try squared it at 20-apiece, and while Percy Montgomery put the favourites back in front with a penalty after the islanders got their defensive knickers at a twist at a driving maul, the game was very much afoot. A clever kick from Bobo put Francois Steyn and Schalk Burger in strife behind their own line, and there would have been a third Fijian try but for a fumble by the centre Seru Rabeni a few inches out. A few seconds later, Rauluni and the outstanding No 8 Sisa Koyamaibole launched another withering attack, freeing Rawaqa on a run to the left corner. Across came Pietersen, five stones lighter than his target but fully committed to the tackle. It was a mighty effort, and it did for Fiji.

Predictably superior at scrum and line-out, the Springboks churned their way upfield where Juan Smith, their fierce and fractious flanker, claimed a pushover try. This was followed by more set-piece pressure and a wrap-up score from the fly-half, Butch James. Yet the fact remains: it took South Africa 77 minutes to put down the last of the Pacific uprisings. This may say more about Fiji and than it does about the Boks – it would be wonderful to think so – but is there not a streak of frailty about Jake White's team? Yesterday, they looked anything but world champions in waiting.

After Argentina's opening-night victory over France, their own 36-0 shellacking of England in the second round of pool matches and the spectacular Fijian victory over Wales in Nantes, the South Africans seemed set fair for the final. They were in the cosy half of the draw, their key players – the likes of Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana – were on a hot streak, and they were pretty much injury-free. It is not quite so simple now.

They are down to the bare bones on the propping front and some of the big names are scratching around for form. Habana was outplayed by the Fijian wings yesterday, while Du Preez delivered the worst punting game of the tournament to date. There was not much to be said for Montgomery's marksmanship, either. The long-serving full-back had some rough moments with his goal-kicking.

What the Boks did have was a driving game, and they drove Fiji to distraction. Their opening try on 12 minutes came from a line-out delivery by Bakkies Botha and a powerful run from Smith, which allowed Du Preez to find Jaque Fourie with a long scoring pass. Their second, in first-half stoppage time, went to Smit, who rumbled over from another line-out routine. When Pietersen crossed 10 minutes into the second period – Victor Matfield, one of the more cultured footballers among the hulking-great-brute brigade, did the damage with a one-handed flick out of the tackle – there were unmistakeable signs of a South African landslide.

It failed to materialise, and if the Boks are not concerned at their inability to build on a 20-6 lead against a team with no history of success against them, they should be. White, their head coach, went some way towards expressing concern.

"I think it's fair to say we didn't play as well as we might have done," he said. "But it's all about getting to the next stage of the tournament, and that's where we are. I'd sooner be in our position than in Australia's or New Zealand's, that's for sure."

South Africa: P Montgomery (Natal Sharks); JP Pietersen (Natal Sharks), J Fourie (Golden Lions), F Steyn (Natal Sharks), B Habana (Blue Bulls); B James (Natal Sharks), F du Preez (Blue Bulls); O du Randt (Free State), J Smit (Natal Sharks, capt), J du Plessis (Free State), B Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), S Burger (Western Province), J Smith (Free State), D Rossouw (Blue Bulls). Replacements: W van Heerden (Blue Bulls) for Rossouw 49; J Muller (Natal Sharks) for Botha, 51-56 & 80; G Steenkamp (Free State) for Du Randt 52.

Fiji: N Ligairi (Brive); V Delasau (Clermont Auvergne), K Ratuvou (Saracens), S Rabeni (Leicester), S Bobo (Biarritz); S Bai (Clermont Auvergne), M Rauluni (Saracens, capt); G Dewes (Auckland Marist), S Koto (Suva), H Qiodravu (Orléans), K Leawere (Hino Motors), I Rawaqa (World Fighting Bulls), S Naevo (NEC Green Rockets), A Qera (Gloucester), S Koyamaibole (Padova). Replacements: J Railomo (Poitevin) for Qiodravu, 55; G Lovobalavu (Suva) for Ratuvou, 68; B Gadolo (Suva) for Koto, 78; A Ratuva (Nadroga) for Qera, 78; W Lewaravu (Nadroga) for Leawere, 80.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).