Springboks ride the storm

Rugby World Cup: Rainbow nation find their pot of gold as France are repelled after the deluge
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The Independent Online
France 15 South Africa 19

Pen: Lacroix 36, 39, 45, 58 Tries: Kruger 26

77

Con: Stransky 26

Pen: Stransky 2, 44, 48, 70

THE rainbow nation indeed. In the most atrocious conditions, caused by a deluge which had delayed the kick-off by 90 minutes, the Springboks clung on by the slenderest of threads in the face of a courageous French revival to reach the World Cup final.

Beaten by four points and never in front during the contest, France displayed spirit and resilience in abundance and were thwarted in that final, furious assault only by the raw determination of opponents for whom defeat would be tantamount to a national calamity. But, impossible as it is not to regret France's exit from the tournament, South Africa, by virtue of the fact that they had led from the second minute of the match and had dominated the play for long periods in the first half, were ultimately worthy winners.

It was palpitatingly close, an enthralling contest of a quality infinitely higher than any of those bedraggled souls present had a right to expect. The final minutes were agonising for both sides. Three times in that spell, with the Springboks holding on to their precarious four-point lead, the French were awarded a scrummage five metres from the Springboks' line. On each occasion, the South African forwards, by now betraying the classic symptoms of exhaustion, held them at bay, and when, in desperation, France moved the ball into midfield, the fly-half Joel Stransky, his steely eyes glinting, moved in swiftly for the kill. Seconds later, it was all over and the partisan crowd joined the Springboks in celebration.

With squads of groundstaff and volunteers sweeping standing pools of water before kick-off, the pitch was barely playable and when the heavens opened again in the first half, there was little doubt that, in normal circumstances, the match would have been abandoned. But had it been, we would have been denied one of the most thrilling encounters of the tournament.

It was clear that victory would go to the side better able to adapt to the saturated surface and, certainly in the first half, it was the Springboks who were more at home in the conditions. They also possessed the most adaptable player on the field in their remarkable scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen. While it is not always easy to warm to this abrasively competitive individual, it is impossible not to be lost in admiration for his play.

From the very first line-out when he broke clean through the middle to set up the first of Stransky's four penalties to the sniping surge around the apron of his forwards from which the eternally vigilant flank forward Ruben Kruger scored from the midst of a rolling maul, van der Westhuizen was masterfully in control. When he went off with a rib injury 12 minutes into the second half, the Springboks had lost their most penetrative runner and were never as effective a force again. By that time, however, they were 16-9 ahead which seemed an almost unassailable lead in the conditions. But we had reckoned without the French resistance.

The decision to select the biggest pack available to them proved to be a mixed blessing for the Springboks. On the credit side, it ensured that they would not be budged in the scrummage. Mark Andrews also took some crucial two-handed catches in the middle and at the tail of the line-out and in the quagmire his lack of mobility was never fully exposed, although Laurent Cabannes and Abdel Benazzi, surely the outstanding forward in this tournament, did their best to bring weight to the French attacks.

What the Springboks could not have foreseen, however, were the conditions, and not for the first time they failed to display the same staying power as their opponents. By the end, it was clear that a number of the forwards were on the verge of exhaustion while one or two others had slipped over the edge.

The French half-backs were clearly under instructions to test the defensive capabilities of the Springboks' loose forwards, but the only real danger to the South Africans came from their own indiscipline. Thierry Lacroix, given sight of goal on six occasions, kicked five penalties in another formidable display of accuracy. One sensed, however, that his one blemish 18 minutes from the end would be crucial.

In that final quarter, Johan Roux, replacing van der Westhuizen, kicked the French to distraction with some delicately placed chips which provoked the volatile lock forward Olivier Merle into another indiscretion for which he was punished by Stransky.

But if the Springboks felt that they could tread water - literally - until the final whistle, they were very much mistaken. The French attacked with all the furious commitment left in their aching bodies, flinging themselves towards the Springbok line. With a minute left, Christ-ophe Deylaud, who had another mixed game at fly-half, launched a towering up- and-under which fell deep inside the home 22. The greasy ball was spilled, and Benazzi, charging through, collected and was held up inches from the line.

The full-back Andre Joubert, his broken hand heavily strapped and protected, stood firm, as did the rest of the Springboks' defence, in those desperate closing seconds and it was Stransky's last-ditch tackle in midfield which finally ended the French assault.

The South Africans, whatever the result today, have the final they want, and for the French there is the scant consolation of the third-place play-off and of knowing that this was their finest day in this World Cup.

South Africa: A Joubert (Natal); J Small, (Natal), J Mulder (Transvaal) H Le Roux (Transvaal), C Williams (Western Province); J Stransky (Western Province), J Van Der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); P Du Randt (Orange Free State), C Rossouw (Transvaal) B Swart (Transvaal), H Strydom (Transvaal), K Wiese (Transvaal), F Pienaar (Transvaal) capt, R Kruger (Northern Transvaal), M Andrews (Natal).

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

Referee: D Bevan (Wales).

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