The Springboks produced a heroic second-half fightback to turn the tables on France and complete a heart-stopping 29-28 victory to book their place in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals.
For much of the match, the host nation dominated territory and possession, cheered on by 80 000 passionate fans as the Boks barely held on at times in the face of a fierce French onslaught.
But the South Africans made the most of what little ball they had in the first half to score some brilliant counter-attacking tries and then started to turn the tables on their opponents in the second half when a string of substitutions saw a definite shift in momentum.
It was a very different story in the first half of this memorable World Cup clash in which the Boks were never really able to exact their usual forward dominance, even as their normally rock-solid defence was frequently found wanting in the face of France’s rapid-fire attacks, spearheaded by their hugely influential captain Antoine Dupont whose quick delivery caused plenty of problems.
Still, the Boks never gave up, kept in touch on the scoreboard and gradually gained the upper hand despite not always being as clinical on the night in terms of their execution and discipline – and despite a yellow card reducing them to 14 men – with only sheer guts, heart and determination getting them over the line.
So many players put their hand up on the night, from Jesse Kriel to wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse and Test centurion Eben Etzebeth, but it was also an incredible team performance considering all the adversity the players faced in the match.
When France set up a line-out shortly after, the speed of their rolling maul caught the Bok defence napping as it barrelled all the way to the line where quick hands saw Cyril Baille go over in the corner. Thomas Ramos added the extras from out wide as the hosts took an early 7-0 lead.
The Springboks needed a response and they got it when Duane Vermeulen turned it over at the breakdown and France failed to deal with an ensuing up-and-under from Cobus Reinach, allowing Arendse to pounce on the ball and beat the covering French defence for a brilliant try. Faced with a tough kick first up, Manie Libbok settled his nerves to level the scores as the Boks came up with the perfect response to France’s blistering start.
The breathtaking end-to-end action didn’t stop, and this time it was the Springboks’ turn again as another turnover allowed Jesse Kriel to send through a perfect kick for Kolbe, who only had to run onto the ball and use his pace to coast in for another try. Libbok’s third attempt was good as the Boks took a 19-12 lead.
True to form, back came France after another kick in behind the Bok defence forced Kolbe to carry the ball over the line to set up a line-out in the corner, and there was no stopping Baille from going over for the try following another fast-paced French assault. Ramos added the extras to level the scores at 19-apiece.
South Africa started the second half still a man down, and with barely five minutes gone, they brought on RG Snyman and Deon Fourie for Franco Mostert and Siya Kolisi, while Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk came on as a brand-new halfback pairing for Libbok and Reinach.
It was scrappy stuff as the Boks held on in the face of more France attacks, but they just about held on to welcome back Etzebeth without giving away any further points.
When France won a penalty at the scrum – much to the Boks’ disgust – Ramos had a chance to kick for goal and put the hosts six points clear. When the Boks finally had a rare opportunity to inside the French 22, the referee awarded France a penalty for a steal as the attack came to nought. A great little break from Kolbe re-ignited them, but again a little knock-on saw possession turned over as they tried to make their field position count.
South Africa were starting to see more of the ball now, however, and when they won a very kickable scrum penalty, they decided to kick for the corner. Unfortunately, they couldn’t win the ensuing line-out, as France did just about enough to disrupt the Springbok ball and get the turnover.
The moment of controversy arrived as De Klerk sent a pass straight into a France player loitering behind the ruck, but the referee saw it as deliberate from the scrumhalf and France got the put-in at the scrum, albeit still stuck inside their 22 with just minutes left on the clock.
That handed France one final chance to go on the attack, and despite taking it up into Springbok territory with some fantastic running rugby, South Africa’s defence stood firm as they held on for one of the most famous victories in their long and proud World Cup history.