South Africa comfortably won the World Cup’s bronze final, which played out as part rugby match, part hall of fame parade, with a series of farewells to substituted players taking their leave of the Test stage. Surprisingly, perhaps, one of those withdrawn early was Bryan Habana, when the great wing was still stuck short of a couple of personal scoring records, but Heyneke Meyer, whose own future as Springbok head coach is uncertain for different reasons, clearly valued the crowd giving Habana a heartfelt ovation over any new entry in the history books.
Both teams had won one of these face-offs for third and fourth place before – South Africa in 1999, when they beat New Zealand in Cardiff, and Argentina in 2007, rousingly against France in Paris. It was not quite accurate to describe it as the match no one wanted to be in – any of the home nations would have given their right arms to be involved, as it would have meant a semi-final place along the way – but motivation was accrued from abnormal sources. No formal announcements have been made but it is thought Victor Matfield for certain and possibly Schalk Burger and Bryan Habana too were playing their last internationals for South Africa, and the absent Fourie du Preez is going with them. For Habana additionally there was a pair of obvious individual targets, and he missed three chances in the first half to collect a record 16th try in World Cups, and move ahead of David Campese as second on the all-time overall list (they were tied on 64).
First, with the Springboks already 7-0 to the good after JP Pietersen’s try on the right wing converted by Handre Pollard, a wide-ranging attack from a line-out ended with Habana just beaten by the full-back Lucas Amorosino to a bouncing chip over the goalline. Then Habana, to his chagrin, had to jump to take a difficult pass from Pollard and was unable to gather it for what would have been a simple run-in. Finally the 32-year-old wing playing his 117th Test tried a chip and chase of his own, only to concede a penalty for dragging down the defending Santiago Cordero.
The off-key nature was evident in the breakdown being contested more like a bundle in the kindergarten playpen than the all-in mixed martial arts normally expected of the Springboks. A little dart by Cordero in the 23rd minute was reminiscent of the wing’s whirligig contributions earlier in the tournament although he’d had a nightmarish semi-final against Australia last Sunday, when Argentina’s willingness to attack went belly up with an early interception pass thrown by Nicolas Sanchez. By half-time here South Africa, who had more or less their customary line-up compared with the Pumas’ 10 changes, were 16-0 up with three penalties kicked by Pollard.
Sanchez was awarded the captaincy, in the absence of the injured hooker Agustin Creevy, but there was no Diego Maradona beerily cheering in the stands as the fly-half dropped a goal in the first minute of the second half. It kept the Boks only temporarily at bay, and it was Habana with a classy take and give who made the two-time champions’ second try for the lock Eben Etzebeth, that went unconverted. Habana resumed his frustrating record pursuit, as he made an embarrassing knock-on when it looked as if he might find clear water, before a few boos in a sold-out crowd for Stratford’s fifth World Cup match greeted Pollard’s conservative choice of a fourth penalty for 24-3 on 47 minutes, before Sanchez replied in kind five minutes later.
The sentimental feeling ratcheted up as Juan Fernandez Lobbe trotted off – the great Argentinian flanker is one of a handful of Pumas not returning home to the new Super Rugby contracts in the New Year, and therefore likely not to be selected internationally – and was followed in similar style by Burger and Matfield and Habana although Burger returned as a blood replacement which afforded him an amusing second valedictory ovation. The thrust that had thrilled Puma-fanciers in previous contests had turned to disappointingly duff side to side stuff. But bless Etzebeth and Tomas Lavanini, whose prolonged mutual grapple of the necks showed there was some residual heat, and Juan Pablo Orlandi, the replacement prop, dotted down a last-minute try.
South Africa: W le Roux (P Lambie, 64); JP Pietersen; J Kriel, D de Allende, B Habana (J Serfontein, 67); H Pollard, R Pienaar (R Paige, 77); T Mtawarira (T Nyakane, 41), B du Plessis (A Strauss, 48), F Malherbe (J du Plessis, 60), E Etzebeth, V Matfield (capt; L de Jager, 62), S Burger (W Alberts, 53), F Louw (Burger, 61-66), D Vermeulen.
Argentina: L Amorosino; S Cordero, M Moroni, J del Fuente, H Agulla (JP Socino, 57); N Sanchez (capt), T Cubelli (M Landajo, 52); J Figallo (L Noguera, 15-22, 61-64, 70), J Montoya (S Garcia Botta, 77), R Herrera (JP Orlandi, 55), M Alemanno (G Petti, 47), T Lavanini, J Ortega Desio, J Fernandez Lobbe (F Isa, 52), JM Leguizamon.
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).
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