Springboks profit from France's limitations

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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

reports from Durban

South Africa 19 France 15

President Nelson Mandela, no less, had invoked the real deity in support of Francois Pienaar's Springboks - Xhosa calling down blessings on Afrikaner, evidence of the new South Africa - and what did we get at King's Park? A monsoon to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, and a lucky, lucky South African victory.

So somebody up there loves them, though to put their luck into context, in this bewildering World Cup semi-final, whichever of two endlessly valorous teams had won was bound to be lucky and whichever had lost was bound to be unlucky. It was as simple as that.

To draw conclusions about the Springboks' chances when they play New Zealand for the Webb Ellis trophy in next Saturday's final at Ellis Park, you have to examine their progress through the tournament rather than the way they beat the French, since Saturday's circumstances meant that the semi-final could never be a straight contest of skill.

Instead the outcome was decided by more abstruse qualities. After the 90-minute delay that had allowed the condition of the pitch to be improved, South Africa were in the better frame of mind to make the necessary impassioned start and build a lead which then required the most conspicuous gallantry to defend.

The Springboks' defence in the spine-tingling, sodden final minutes when the magnificent Abdel Benazzi was forcibly halted inches short and the French had four close-range scrums in frantic short order, bespoke the passion of heroes for whom this trophy, to return to the divine metaphor, is a holy grail.

At the end, Pienaar was virtually speechless. "It means a tremendous deal, but to express it in words would be futile," he said. "We don't realise what this means to us and to the country."

Rugby as a unifying force here is an alluring proposition, and as the heavens (that metaphor again) opened it did seem as if something more than the pursuit of earthly baubles was driving the Springboks. Joel Stransky's first penalty concluded a ferocious opening attack and when Stransky then converted a try by Ruben Kruger following lunges by Joost van der Westhuizen and Chris Rossouw, French bedragglement appeared complete.

During that critical first half-hour they had been unable to deal with the appalling conditions, either practically or psychologically, and it was both a surprise and creditable that they should then have responded so well.

It was still not enough. Christophe Deylaud improved on his quarter-final form against Ireland, most obviously in hoisting the devilish up-and-under which almost put Benazzi in at the death, but the fact remains that if France had a pair of international half-backs worth the name they would be heading for Johannesburg and not Pretoria.

The French have consciously played rugby of a most limited kind, which due to an improving pack of forwards has tended be adequate for the pragmatic purpose of getting through, only liberating themselves - against Scotland - when the threat of failure turned pragmatism into panic.

On such a day as Saturday, panic-stricken rugby was not an option and, with the irreproachable exception of Thierry Lacroix and his five penalties, no one could kick the ball with the precision and distance the weather demanded. "The difference between the teams was the kicking game, and that meant we conceded the game territorially to the opposition," Pierre Berbizier, France's coach, said.

Lacroix began the fightback with his first two penalties before half- time and in the second half he and Stransky landed three each in a prosaic prelude to a gripping final drama, in which the players themselves contrived to give a reasonable justification for the questionable decision to proceed.

At 3 o'clock, the scheduled kick-off time, Derek Bevan, the referee, deemed the surface water to be dangerous and if the subsequent mopping- up operation left him satisfied, it left the World Cup organisers overwhelmingly relieved that the logistical complexity of a postponement to yesterday had been avoided.

In this instance rugby was not the prime consideration (and therefore, strictly speaking, was not the winner) and there was the added complication that if there had been an abandonment before the Springboks had scored their try France would have gone through because of James Dalton's dismissal against Canada.

We can all be thankful it did not come to that, and suitably sardonic that, rightly or wrongly, Bevan did not bring himself to award a penalty try against the 'Boks when two of those last-gasp scrums collapsed. France must now play England in Thursday's third-place match in Loftus Versfeld, the difference between death or glory having been about three inches, the span between Pienaar's thumb and forefinger when he showed how excruciatingly adjacent Benazzi had been.

SOUTH AFRICA: A Joubert; J Small (Natal), J Mulder, H le Roux (Transvaal), C Williams; J Stransky (Western Province), J Van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); P du Randt (Orange Free State), C Rossouw, S Swart, J Wiese, J Strydom (Transvaal), R Kruger (Northern Transvaal), M Andrews (Natal), F Pienaar (Transvaal, capt). Replacement: J Roux (Transvaal) for Van der Westhuizen, 52.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulouse), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Saint-Andre (Monterrand, capt); C Deylaud (Toulouse), F Galthie (Colomiers); L Armary (Lourdes), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Monterrand), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi (Agen), M Cecillon (Bourgoin), L Cabannes (Racing Club).

Referee: D Bevan (Wales).

WORLD

CUP

UPDATE

Semi-finals

SATURDAY

South Africa 19 France 15

Tries: Kruger

Convs: Stransky

Pens: Stransky 4 Lacroix 5

(at King's Park, Durban)

YESTERDAY

England 29 N Zealand 45

Tries: Carling 2, Lomu 4, Bachop,

Underwood 2 Kronfield

Convs: Andrew 3 Mehrtens 3

Pens: Andrew Mehrtens

Drop goals: Z Brooke,

Mehrtens

(at Newlands, Cape Town)

THIRD-PLACE PLAY-OFF

THURSDAY

England v France (4.0 BST)

(at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)

FINAL

SATURDAY

South Africa v New Zealand (2.0)

(at Ellis Park, Johannesburg)

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