November 2018 Test Match Review

France 26 vs South Africa 29

Saturday, November 10

Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Tom Foley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

A couple of years ago I dubbed these end-of-year rugby tours by the southern hemisphere teams to the north the ”Silly Season” tours.

A bedraggled mob of tired southern rugby players, from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina head north to fulfil the contractual obligations they are committed to by administrators who have never had to pull on a rugby jersey and take to the field in anger at a time when everyone else is starting to talk about end-of-year festivities and holidays.

Each of the four countries heading north is at the end of a long, arduous rugby season. A season that kicked off back in February when the first rounds of Super Rugby involved all four countries. A season that included not just Super Rugby, but also incoming Test match tours in the midyear, a Rugby Championships, and then domestic competitions such as the Mitre 10, the Currie Cup, and the NRC in Australia.

Add in those pre-season training camps and warm-up games, together with some of those festival type Barbarian games, and you have a bunch of players who have been playing professional rugby, a massively high-impact sport, constantly for some 11 months of a year.

And then they head north, for the Silly Season.

Small wonder then, that the mighty All Blacks, the Springboks, the Wallabies, and the Pumas are all a little fatigued and off their best? Just a half-a-second slower to react to pressure moments? Making strange errors and weird decisions? Struggling to stay with the pace of the game, both physically and mentally?

Of course, the north will tell us that they too have fatigue issues, that they too have overly long seasons and that many of their players are either struggling to find their game and rhythm after a too-short break and a season that kicked off just a month or so ago. England even point to the Lions’ tour of New Zealand in 2017 and suggest that some of their players are still getting over that little exercise. France will remind us that they were in New Zealand in the mid-year. Wales visited Argentina, Ireland were in Australia…

However, all those northern hemisphere sides have had time out from the game of rugby during the last couple of months, even if that time was far too short. At least they have all had around six weeks out of the game. Six weeks of rest and recuperation.

None of the southerners have had any chance to recuperate and regenerate. Players are visibly fatigued, decisions are slower and often incorrect, skills are just a little less than sharp, and many seem to simply be going through the motions. Of course, there are moments when an iron will overcomes a flagging body, but they are moments, rather than a sustained effort over the full 80 minutes of a rugby Test match.

And so it was at Twickenham, in Cardiff, Dublin, and Paris. All four the touring teams from the south showed those signs of fatigue, the lack of clarity in decision making, and the indifferent levels of skills and application.

It is to the eternal credit of the players that they do make the effort and do their best, even when that best is measurably less than it would be when they are fresh and rested.

Which brings me to the Test match between France and South Africa in Paris.

There can be no doubt that South Africa managed the impossible when they won the match in the 5th minute of overtime.

In the 78th minute I was forced to leave the room as the call of nature was stronger than my need to watch the last seconds of a game that I had conceded to the French. I said as much to my wife when she asked why I did not wait for the final whistle?

I returned to the television just as Nigel Owens ruled that Damian Penaud had touched the side-line and that the final lineout would take place, South African ball. I sat down to watch what I thought were the last rites of a poor game of rugby. I watched, instead, those frantic final four minutes that ended when Bongi Mbonambi scored the match-winning try in the 85th minute.

Somehow the Springboks managed to move the ball from their own goal line, win three consecutive penalties, have a try denied after a Willie le Roux forward pass on the left wing, and then set up that final lineout, the drive and the try.

Of course it could, perhaps, have been all done and dusted a little earlier, in the 69th minute when Cheslin Kolbe produced a blistering run down the right-hand touchline, stepping past the cover defence before crossing the tryline. A brilliant bit of defence by Arthur Iturria denied Kolbe the try as he knocked the ball from the diminutive winger’s grasp as he went over to score.

Iturria’s defence saved a try, although there are many that felt he should have been penalised for a high tackle in the moment of preventing the try. Some even suggested that a penalty try should have been awarded.

Nigel Owens did not see it that way, and France clung to the lead as the final 10 minutes ticked over.

Of course, France too had their chances earlier to bury the Springboks, chances they too failed to take.

In the 18th minute a drive by the French forwards was halted just 2m short of the Springbok line, Serin sent the ball wide to the backs and all it needed was for Lopez to move the ball along the line to catch the Springboks a man short out wide. They had worked the overlap!  He opted for a grubber, which was blocked by Jesse Kriel’s leg. Teddy Thomas gathered the ball and again the opportunity was open out wide, with Damian Penaud still unmarked. A long pass and France surely score. Once again Thomas opted for the grubber through and it was just too far for Penaud to chase down and score.

Sometimes a failure to take a chance still ended well.

In the 35th minute Thomas again had the opportunity to set up a try as he bobbed, weaved, stepped and sprinted his way from deep in the French half all the way to the Springbok 22m line. A pass to the left or right to unmarked support runners would have been a certain try, but he died with the ball in hand. Fortunately for Thomas, Guirado scored two minutes later from the subsequent melee over the ball.

My overriding impression of this Test is that South Africa looked disjointed, tired, and nervy from the very start. The confidence and attitude that they had shown in the first half at Twickenham seemed to have deserted them as they seemed uncertain and a little wary of committing themselves to the physicality of the previous week. The long-season fatigue factor was evident.

The one thought that kept popping up in my mind was that the Springboks were missing the physicality and focus of Eben Etzebeth! The one player in the whole squad who is not suffering from end-of-year fatigue as he spent the bulk of the year recovering from injury, and thus is both mentally and physically fresh. He has been integral to the Springbok forward efforts and dominance in all the games he has played since his return, most especially last week in that first half against England. When he left the field against England, it was the trigger moment when England started to come back into the game. His enormous presence and influence was obviously missing against France.

Of course, one player does not make a team. There are 14 others out there too, but it often takes just one player to spark the others into action. South Africa missed Eben Etzebeth against France.

Another thought that kept flashing through my head was the lack of continuity amongst the backs. The inclusion of Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk should have been a key factor in triggering the back division back into Test level action, but it was soon evident that the rejigged backline had not had much time to work together and iron out flaws and find the smoothness and interaction that had been so pleasing during the midyear and the Rugby Championships.

All of which contributed to a Springbok effort that has to be considered one of their worst in 2018. It ranks with the losses to Australia and Argentina as low points in a year of rebuilding.

For the fans, a win is always better than a loss, but this cannot be allowed to eclipse the fact that it was a poor performance by the Springboks.

Even with the end-of-year fatigue factor taken into account, a realistic assessment of the Springbok effort and game plan reveals some truly frustrating issues.

Quite why the Springboks chose to stick with a box-kicking strategy for all of 70 minutes of this game will forever be a mystery.

In the early phases of the game it was evident that France were going to use the rush defence to shut down the Springbok midfield as quickly and effectively as possible. The immediate response, and tactically an absolutely correct response, was for Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard to turn the onrushing defence with tactical kicks. They did so.

Once the French three quarters realised that they were being turned by the tactical kicking, they started to counter the kicks with their outside backs, Thomas and Penaud hanging back out wide, and fullback Maxime Medard, patrolling the space behind the set-pieces waiting for the box kick.

The moment the French responded to the Springbok kicking tactics the overall Springbok objective had been achieved. The rush defence was now limited to Bastareaud and Doumayrou in the midfield, supported by Lopez and the loose-forwards. Space had been created out wide, begging for the Springboks to exploit the opportunity to take the ball wider and attack on the fringes.

They did not. It was almost as if they had fallen into some kind of pre-programmed trance as they persisted with kick after kick. Faf de Klerk kicked the ball 19 times, for a total distance of 511 meters. Handré Pollard himself only kicked the ball 5 times, Willie le Roux 4 times, and Jesse Kriel twice. The Springboks kicked the ball a total of 32 times, for 922 meters.

Where was the moment when they switched tactics? Where was Plan B and Plan C? Where was the variation? Why did it only happen in the last ten minutes when the situation had become desperate? Surely an astute, awake team would have alternated tactics, switching between the kicking game and the passing game, the midfield direct attack and the wide attack, to ensure that the French back division was never sure of what was going to happen next?

It was naïve, immature rugby.

The Springboks will take the win, and it will bolster their confidence as they head back over the Channel to face Scotland and Wales. But they must know that they still have an enormous amount of work to do if they want to win the next two Tests. If this were an end-of-year school report, it would say: “Little Johnny has passed, but only just…..”

The Springbok kicking game must be refined and refocussed, while they need to reenergise that defensive shift of the midfield to cover the wider channels that worked so well against the All Blacks and England. The direct game up the middle must be refocussed and polished. And the wide game must not be eschewed.

Most importantly, the forwards need to work as a single unit again. In the first half against England a week ago, they played as a solid cohesive unit that could be covered by the proverbial blanket. Against France that blanket was often torn into shreds and scattered around the field as the forwards lost their midfield cohesion and focus.

The Subs

Last week, against England, there was a social media furore about the lack of impact by the Springbok substitutes. Many a comment was made about the silliness of deploying a substitute with just 10 minutes or less remaining on the clock and that it takes a player at least ten minutes to find his feet in a game and then make a positive contribution. The general opinion was that Rassie Erasmus was using his bench poorly and ineffectually.

Perhaps this week those same voices are stilled?

Bongi Mbonambi was sent on in the 73rd minute, with just 7 minutes left on the clock. He threw four accurate lineouts, carried the ball twice for 11 meters in total, made a telling tackle, and then he scored the winning try. Should he have come on earlier? Malcolm Marx had been pretty good throughout the game, making 15 tackles, missing just 1, turning the ball over twice, making all his lineout throws, carrying the ball with intent and purpose, and making one good linebreak. Marx’s support play had been as good as any throughout the game. Should Bongi have come on earlier? Would he have made the same impact if he had been given 20 minutes rather than just 7?

The other subs were well used too.

Thomas du Toit took over from Steven Kitshoff in the 63rd minute and did exactly what was asked of him. Vincent Koch arrive in the 60th minute and put in a strong shift with some very good defensive work.

RG Snyman came on early, in the 50th minute as Warren Whiteley was hauled off and the loose-forward combination was rejigged with Pieter-Steph du Toit reverting to flank and Vermeulen into the No.8 role. Snyman did his job, exactly as he was supposed to, but it was the change in the loose trio that had the biggest positive effect on the game.

When Francois Louw took over from a visibly tiring Siya Kolisi in the 67th minute, he brought his experience and focus as he made a solid impact on the game, especially in winning crucial turnovers.

Elton Jantjies was given 13 minutes, and had no real impact, other than finding an excellent touch in the 81st minute to set up the Springbok lineout that eventually gave them the game.

Cheslin Kolbe arrived in the 57th minute and brought a different set of running skills and stepping to those of the man he replace, Sbu Nkosi.

Not one of the substitutions could be criticised. Not one was made at the wrong time.

Last week, the subs did not produce the goods, this week they certainly did.

Composure

In the mid-year series against England I commented about the composure of the 2018 Springboks when, in the first two Tests, they found themselves well behind on the scoreboard but still maintained their discipline and composure to fight back and win the Tests.

Once again, this week, we must comment on the composure of the Springbok team. When they were behind on the scoreboard and the clock was ticking away from them, they maintained their composure and retained a level of calmness that is unexpected amongst a group of largely inexperienced players.

I am reminded of a comment that the great tennis player Abe Segal once made to a much younger and inexperienced Gordon Forbes when the latter was starting to get the jitters during a Davis Cup tennis tournament. The South African duo were down a set and losing the second set of the game when Segal famously said to Forbes “Don’t panic! It is too early to panic! I will tell you when to panic!”

Forbes and Sega went on to win the match.

Read Gordon Forbes’ book, “A Handful of Summers.” It is a great read.

This week the young Springboks did not panic. They did not succumb to the pressure.

That is a very good sign for the future.

The Referee.

Nigel Owens is the best referee in the world for one very good reason. He does not get rattled. He handles each and every game with calm composure. He displays a deep understanding of the game and the moments within a game. He knows how to make considered calls, and he makes the correct call more often than not. (Sure, he makes mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, that is human.)

His handling of the two “late hit” moments in the game were perfect examples of a referee that really knows his game. When Mathieu Bastareaud was late onto Handré Pollard Owens was 100% correct in calling it a “rugby moment” – it was not a foul, it was not intentional, and it had no impact on either player. It was simply something that happens in rugby. When Faf de Klerk went for the charge-down of Camille Lopez’s kick it was another rugby moment, although the law might suggest that De Klerk had gone in high and made contact with his opponent’s head and should thus be sent off for 10 minutes. Again Owens had the sense to see, and rule, that there was no malice, no intent, and nothing more than a player doing his job. A penalty was the correct decision.

The game of rugby is the better for having referees such as Nigel Owens.

Summary

France could have won this Test. Perhaps they should have won the Test. But they did not. The Springboks had been poor all game, with errors and mistakes, silly decisions and weird tactics, yet they had maintained their overall focus, they stayed calm, and won the game in the final breath. It is to the credit of the Springboks that they had the guts and determination to go on and win the game. The French will wonder how and why they could not shut the game down.

It will go down in the books as an ugly win, but it could so easily have been a poor loss.

And that is the difference between the Springboks and the French.

They did not panic.

 

Individual Player Rating

SOUTH AFRICA

15. Willie le Roux – 5
I thought Willie Le Roux was a little rusty. Struggled to get himself into the game, although he was instrumental in the creation of two try-scoring opportunities – Cheslin Kolbe’s effort and then Aphiwe Dyantyi’s non-try in the corner. Lack of communication with Sbu Nkosi resulted in a failure to call for the high-ball that resulted in Bastareaud’s try early in the second half. Made five carries for 23m. Two tackles, missed one. Mostly safe under the high ball except for that one error.
14. S’bu Nkosi – 5
Tried hard, too hard at times as he shot out of the defensive line rather precipitously a couple of times. Lack of communication and calling for the high-ball resulted in a try to Bastareaud, but he immediately paid back the debt when he collected the loose ball and scored from the resultant kick-off. Carried the ball twice, and made 5 tackles, but missed two
13. Jesse Kriel – 6
Made a couple of strong runs with the ball in hand, but slipped back into the habit of holding the ball a half-second too long when a pass would have freed the runner outside him. Makes him a tiny bit predictable. Made five tackles and missed one. Kicked a ball that should have been kept in hand.
12. Damian de Allende – 5
A marked man. Was not given any room to move at all, the French defenders certainly watched his game against England and decided to shut him out of the game, which tactic worked, but did provide some space for Kriel outside him! Made just 6 m with the ball in hand and was restricted to just 3 carries. Made 8 tackles, but missed 3,
11. Aphiwe Dyantyi – 5
Tried hard and went looking for work, but abandoned his wide channel just a little too quickly when he shot in on the defence. Left the wing channel open. Took a good high ball, and made a couple of very good tackles, but missed two.
10. Handré Pollard – 8
The best of the Bok backs, cool-headed and focussed, although he did not take on enough of the tactical kicking responsibility. Goal kicking flawless. 5 penalties and 2 conversions for 19 points that made the difference in the end. Some silly mistakes, including a forward pass to Jesse Kriel inside the Bok 22.
9. Faf de Klerk – 6
Hot and cold. Playing to instructions, we must assume, as he kicked the proverbial leather off the ball, with 19 box-kicks. Some kicks were very good, some a little iffy. A great kick behind the French defence in the 55th minute when the Boks were playing for territory. Service was generally crisp and accurate, but sometime he delayed the play off the base of the breakdown too long. A clever moment that failed was a quick penalty tap, but then his pass failed to find Cheslin Kolbe on the blindside. Four tackles, one missed.
8. Warren Whiteley – 4
Not his day, at all. He was simply invisible on the field. Made six tackles, which is what one expects from him, but he missed one, which we do not expect. Subbed after 49 minutes, and the Springbok loose-trio was immediately better balanced and more cohesive.
7. Duane Vermeulen – 7
Did his job as blind-sider, but stepped up a gear when he switched back to the more familiar No.8 position. Carried the ball 10 times for 26 hard yards. Six tackles, missing 2, two turnovers. Won a turnover penalty, and put in some thumping hits.
6. Siya Kolisi – 4
The fatigue of a long long season is showing. Made 10 tackles, but missed two, and seemed to slow as the clock ticked. Substituted in the 67th minute. Gave away too many penalties for comfort, slow to roll away from the tackle and playing from an offside position, all indications of a tired man.
5. Franco Mostert – 6
Did his job as he always does. Took all 8 lineballs called on him, made seven tackles, carried the ball 7 times. Lost one ball in contact. Played a big part in the final try-scoring maul.
4. Pieter-Steph du Toit – 8
Once again, the best of the Springbok forwards, and probably the best of the whole team. Did his job at lock, and then stepped up several gears when he reverted to the blind side flanker role. His pressure and tackle at a restart ended in Nkosi’s try. Made 17 tackles, missed three, but some of those tackles were huge and will be receiving the French physio’s attention today.
3. Frans Malherbe – 7
A very good game for the quite man of the team. Scrummed with power, carried the ball with purpose, and made a massive 12 tackles without missing any. Would have liked more scrums…….
2. Malcolm Marx – 7
Sorted out his lineouts and made all 10 the throws he was called on to make. Made 8 tackles and missed just 1. One great linebreak and run , perhaps needs to be more aware of support runners? A menace at the breakdowns.
1. Steven Kitshoff – 7
What can one say? He scrummed as well as he always does. Makes life difficult for any and every opponent. Carried the ball 7 times, made 7 tackles. Looked a little weary towards the end of his stint, but so did the whole team.

Replacements:

16. Bongi Mbonambi – 8(On for Malcolm Marx, 73rd min)
A good day for Bongi, and his smile was worth the price of an entrance ticket to the stadium!  Hit all six of his lineouts and scored the that vital match-winning try.

17 Thomas du Toit – 6 (On for Steven Kitshoff, 63rd min)
Scrummed well enough, carried the ball with power. Made three good tackles. Did his job.

18 Vincent Koch – 6 (On for Frans Malherbe, 60th min)
Scrummed well, carried the ball twice, made 3 good tackles

19 RG Snyman – 7 (On for Warren Whiteley, 50th min)
His best, most disciplined performance in a Springbok jersey to date. Made some big carries and instrumental in the lineouts that led up to the final try. Made 3 good tackles

20 Francois Louw – 7  (On for Siya Kolisi, 67th min)
Won a crucial breakdown penalty for the Boks 5m from their tryline Made his tackles and was a menace over the ball. A good day for him.

21 Embrose Papier
Not used.

22 Elton Jantjies – 6 (On for Damian de Allende, 67th min)

Did not do much worth commenting on. Penalty kick to the line in the 80th minute did not find touch, but was not costly as the Springboks got the next lineout. Great touch kick to set up a Bok lineout 5m from the French tryline in 81st minute. 1 carry. No tackles.

23 Cheslin Kolbe – 6 (On for Sibusiso Nkosi, 57th min)
He had one great stepping run for the tryline, but he was robbed of the ball as he went over to score. Made 43m from two runs, and a tackle.

 

FRANCE

15 Maxime Médard – 6
Good with ball in hand, beat a number of defenders out wide. Caught in possession too easily.

14 Teddy Thomas – 6
Made plenty of metres carrying the ball, but a lack of awareness resulted in opportunities going begging. A constant irritation to the Springbok defenders. Ran a couple of clever, and legal, obstructive lines to disrupt chasers of the Springbok box-kicks.

13 Mathieu Bastareaud – 5
Overdid the physical stuff by trying to smash through the Springbok defenders when a pass was a better option. Kept the Springbok defence busy, and he scored a great try.

12 Geoffrey Doumayrou – 5
Mostly invisible. Some nice touches with the ball. Solid on defence.

11 Damian Penaud – 5
Made the crucial mistake on the touchline that gave the Springboks the lineout that triggered the final four minutes of frantic rugby. A few good runs out wide.

10 Camille Lopez – 6
Solid, but kicked the ball far too much.

9 Baptiste Serin – 7
The best of the French backs. Scored 13 of his team’s points with the boot. Crisp clean service and quick to the ball.

8 Louis Picamoles – 7
Seemed to run out of steam after a number of good carries with ball in hand. Some good tackles and hard work over the ball.

7 Arthur Iturria – 8
The best of the French team. A never-ending focus and effort. Lucky to get away with the try-saving tackle of Kolbe, but the point is that he was there! Won two turnovers and he was good on defence.

6 Wenceslas Lauret – 6
Plenty of tackles, but not much else.

5 Yoann Maestri – 7
Contested the lineouts, made his own catches. Very good in the carry, and a good, aggressive, defender.

4 Sébastien Vahaamahina – 7
Carried the ball with plenty of purpose. Made some great tackles.

3 Cedate Gomes Sa – 4
Struggled in the scrums, a few good carries.

2 Guilhem Guirado (captain) – 6
A great try, and a busy shift until he also seemed to run out of steam.

1 Jefferson Poirot – 4
Struggled in the scrums and was invisible elsewhere.

Replacements:

16 Camille Chat – 4 (On for Guilhem Guirado, 65th min)
He brought very little when he came onto the field.

17 Dany Priso – 3  (On for Jefferson Poirot, 60th min)
Invisible. One carry and a couple of tackles.

18 Rabah Slimani – 3 (On for Cedate Gomes Sa, 60th min)
Another invisible man, who brought nothing to the French effort.

19 Paul Gabrillagues (On for Sebastien Vahaamahina, 77th min)
Not enough time to be rated.

20 Mathieu Babillot – 5 (On for Louis Picamoles, 61st min)
Made some very good tackles.

21 Antoine Dupont – 5 (On for Baptiste Serin, 67th min)
Great defensive effort in the final 10 minutes.

22 Anthony Belleau – 3 (On for Camille Lopez, 67th min)
Not sure why he was brought on. Simply vanished.

23 Gaël Fickou – 6 (On for Geoffrey Doumayrou, 36th and 53rd min)
A good shift. Should perhaps have started. Good with ball in hand. Beat three defenders with just two carries. Made his tackles.

Scorers:

For France:
Tries: Guirado, Bastareaud
Cons: Serin 2
Pens: Serin 3
Drop goal: Lopez

For South Africa:
Tries: Nkosi, Mbonambi
Cons: Pollard 2
Pens: Pollard 5

The Teams

France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Damian Penaud, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Mathieu Babillot, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Gael Fickou

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Duane Vermeulen, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Cheslin Kolbe