The run-up to today's second semi-final of the World Cup has become a haven for second-guessing. Ordinarily, though, a meeting of South Africa and Argentina would be a nailed-on festival for the hard nuts up front, and that in itself raises a fascinating spectre from the past. Francois Pienaar, who captained the Springboks to a home victory in their one previous final, in 1995, was happy to make one firm prediction. Watch out for the drop goal.
Pienaar's belief at the business end of an unpredictable World Cup is based on hard fact. Though the drop goal remains sniffily frowned upon as the runt of the scoring litter, its role in World Cup history grows more compelling every time the Webb Ellis Cup is up for grabs.
Pienaar ran through the list of matches settled by a drop of glory earlier this week, and given that his audience was predominantly English at a London charity dinner, there were cheers and groans aplenty.
"Rob Andrew started it for England in 1991 against Scotland and against Australia in 1995," Pienaar said, to raucous applause. "Then there was Joel Stransky in extra time for our team in the '95 final, and four years later you had Jannie de Beer against England." Boos all round. "Did I mention that Jannie did it five times?" said Pienaar, warming to his theme. "Plus there was Steve Larkham for Australia against the Springboks in extra time in the '99 semi-final" – a mixed reaction before the big finish – "and then Jonny in 2003".
De Beer was the toast of the Boks eight years ago at the Stade de France venue where the 2007 vintage will take on Argentina – a team South Africa have never lost to – tonight. The secret, according to the scrum-half that day, Joost van der Westhuizen, was in the spontaneity. "The truth is we changed the whole gameplan five minutes into the game," Van der Westhuizen said. "When Janniestruck the first one we knew that, OK, his timing is on. He struck the second one and then we changed it by saying we'll give the ball to [centre] Pieter Muller, let him set it up in midfield, and Jannie will fall back and drop. And it worked. That's the type of class and experience you need."
Argentina's fly-half, Juan Martin Hernandez, can put a drop goal away with either foot, as Scotland, who watched him corkscrew one over with his supposedly weaker left foot in last Sunday's quarter-final, will testify. The Springboks have an advantage, with masters of the art in all areas of the field, not to mention Ruan Pienaar and Andre Pretorius on the bench.
Their fly-half, Butch James, has been putting in extra practice in training, while Percy Montgomery, Francois Steyn and Pretorius have six, eight and three Test drop goals respect-ively to their names. Not quite the 22 which Wilkinson had mustered coming into this World Cup, but a significant threat. The precocious 20-year-old Steyn put one over from more than 50 metres against England at Twickenham last autumn.
"The drop goal will surface again in the semi-finals and it will surface in the final," said Pienaar, the former captain. "It comes from a player who's got fire in his heart and ice in his brain. This year Hernandez has been unbelievable. You get to the knockout stages, where you get one opportunity, and you have to take it."
Asked on Friday whether it was possible to devise a defence against the drop, Jake White, the coach of South Africa, admitted: "In reality, not really. If your pack is going forward, you should be able to work the correct position. It's something Argentina use very well, and that's why they have moved Hernandez [from full-back] to fly-half. They have a big pack to get them field position and let [scrum-half Agustin] Pichot and Hernandez take the decisions."
Montgomery, whose 92 caps contribute to a South African record total of 653 for this match, said: "If it's on, it's on. Insemi-finals and finals anything can happen. It's nice to know Frans can kick a drop goal from the halfway line if need be. First we have to go with our game- plan and see if it's on. It's a good weapon to have. Guys practise it on [their] own and when the time's ready to do it, we will."
Pienaar said he was "nervous" for South Africa and hailed Arg-entina for living their dream. "Everybody knows my country's history, it's an embarrassing history," he said. "When the door of our dressing room opened for the 1995 final and Nelson Mandela [left, with Pienaar] walked in, I did not know he was going to be there, and in my wildest dreams I never thought he'd be wearing my jersey.
"South Africa have never lost to Argen-tina, and the World Cup can do strange things to men. But I think our big players will stand up."Reuse content