Well bonjour mes amis and welcome to the pre-game chat regarding RWC2023 quarter-final no4 to be duked out by the quite literal heavyweights of the finals, Les Frogs (aka Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys – CESM) and the Saffas (aka ‘Catholics’ given they generally hate the pill). This match is slated for Stade de France, Paris at 9pm Sunday night (6am Monday Sydney local time). And Kiwi Ben O’Keeffe will blow the pea, ably assisted by Paul Williams and James Doleman with Brendo Pickerill up in the TMO Box.
For me, and indeed for everyone I think, this is a premature meeting. These are two of the absolute form sides of the rugby scene recently. The Bokke are the reigning World Champs and the Frogs have been on an upward trajectory since the last World Cup, currently running as World No2 behind the now homeward-bound Paddies. So it’s a shame to have such form heavyweights meet in ‘only’ a quarter final. But it is what it is and faced with the alternative – that’d be to not see these two goliaths duke it out – I’ll take what I can get with glee.
The tale of the tape: The first thing that jumps out at me is that the Saffas have never lost to the Frogs at a World Cup. But that said, despite the Frogs playing three Bill finals for no wins (’87, ’99 & ’11) and the Saffas being three finals for three wins (’95, ’07 & ’19) they have played each other at a World Cup in any way only once before (1995 semi-final in Durban). So that’s hardly form to gauge from.
More holistically, the two first met in Bordeaux in January of 1913 with the Jaapies taking the choccies. And since then they have butted heads 45 times with Le Frogs taking 12 victories to Saffas 27 and splitting 6 draws between them. Looking for some form, of the last 10 meetings between the two, the results are 3 to the Fogs and 7 to the Bokke. But again, that stretches back to 2006 because they don’t play each other often (I wonder why?). Anyway, their last meeting was in the November touring season of 2022 with France grabbing the baguettes by 30-26.
France’s World Cup has been pretty flawless to date. They beat the All Blacks in the curtain raiser by 27-13, dispatched Uruguay 27-12, obliterated Namibia 96-0 and had an opposed training run last week against Italy 60-7. So they are bang-on form and raring to go.
Along the way they have lost Romain Ntamack (ACL) and arguably the current world’s best player Antoine Dupont took away a broken face from the Namibian clash, but will play on with some sort of face-guard regardless. So they have a pretty much intact squad coming into the match.
The Catholics’ World Cup has likewise been fairly dominant, but not perfect. They beat a pesky Scotland 18-3, devoured Romania 76-0 and took the brutality of Tonga 49-18. But they did drop a pool match to the Paddies by 13-8 while leaving a dozen kicking points on the park and having a very dodgy driving maul call go against them by ref Ben O’Keeffe in the dying moments.
That said, the Saffa squad is still fairly healthy. They’ve lost absolute strike weapons in Malcolm ‘Karl’ Marx and Makazole Mapimpi along the way, but that said they have had Hondre Pollard come into the squad after earlier missing out due to a calf injury.
For South Africa, cJacques Nienaber has named a fairly conservative 5-3 bench with only two changes from the team that beat Ireland in the pools with Cobus Reinach getting a trot ahead of Faf de Klerk, and Duane Vermeulen taking over from Jasper Wiese at number eight. There are 14 players in this match-day squad from the loss to France in the 2022 November Tour, and, interestingly, there are seven players in this squad who have played in both the 2015 and 2019 quarter-finals in Willie Le Roux, Damian de Allende, Handre Pollard, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit. It’s a serious team, very experienced, who are in good form.
Catholics: 1 Steven Kitshoff, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 3 Frans Malherbe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 5 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 10 Manie Libbok, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 12 Damian de Allende, 13 Jesse Kriel, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 15 Damian Willemse
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Handre Pollard, 23 Willie Le Roux
For France, coach Fabien Galthié has made only one change to the French side that drubbed Italy with captain Antoine Dupont returning with his suspect jaw. The bench is a 6-2 split and a full dozen of the lads who toppled Le Bokke last November back on the pitch again. With talismanic captain Dupont back and yet to lose a match as captain on home soil, their team looks composed and has genuine weapons all over the park
CESM: 1 Cyril Baille, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 3 Uini Atonio, 4 Cameron Woki, 5 Thibaud Flament, 6 Anthony Jelonch, 7 Charles Ollivon, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 11 Louis Bielle-Biarrey, 12 Jonathan Danty, 13 Gael Fickou, 14 Damian Penaud, 15 Thomas Ramos
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Francois Cros, 21 Sekou Macalou, 22 Maxime Lucu, 23 Yoram Moefana
Nutta’s Fearless Prediction (aka ‘The Kiss of Death’): With Galthie sporting a win percentage of 80% and captain Dupont yet to lose a domestic match, France have an air of the predestined about them. It’s got a feeling that ‘it’s their time’. But the Bokke are big game specialists, with the meat to match the Frogs all over the park and then some. In particular, the quality the Saffas have coming off the bench is first rate. So in a game of what will be earth-shuddering impacts and wafer fine margins, it will be a battle of the kickers and nerves and I reckon Le Bokke have more of both.
I’m tipping the Bokke to win by less than 7 to close out a magnificent RWC2023 Quarter Final series.
Let’s get it on baby!
H1: The Bokke kicked off and we settled into the usual aerial exchanges until a scintillating Dupont chip kick and pressure-through nearly saw France bag an early pie before the 2nd minute ticked over. But the ensuing line dropout set France up attacking and bashing the Bokke quarter line, triggered by blindingly fast ruck ball. The early pressure was too much for the Bokke and from a fantastic driving maul and some quick picks and offloads, French no1 Cyril Baille crashed over for a pie in the corner at 3min. Ramos sauce squirt was true, 7-0 France at 5min. Less than 2min later a great midfield break by French no2 Mauvaka had the French bashing the Bokke line again until a highly suspect intercept attempt by Bokke Etzebeth killed the play. But the play and momentum was all France in the opening exchanges.
But then, from nowhere and totally against the run of play, a standard Bokke no9 Reinach mid-field box kick saw Vermeulen make the catch for the Bokke and quick hands saw the ball get to Kurt-Lee Arendse on the right wing, whose even quicker feet saw him streak away for a Bokke pie at 8min. Libbok’s shot was good and it’s 7-7 at 9min.
These sides are here to play.
First scrum at 13min was static, but clearly a massive spend of energy with neither side proving any ascendency. And a breakdown misdemeanour penalty on Bokke no1 Kitsoff at 14min saw Ramos shoot for 3pts, only to hit the upright.
At 17min another round of midfield bombs saw France not deal with the highball well, allowing de Allende to gather the bobbles after Woki’s initial fumble and break away downfield. A quick ruck or two and de Allende found the ball again, to crash his decidedly unBokke frame over for the Bokke second pie. Libbok missed the extras and it was 12-7 Bokke at 19min.
But the French weren’t going away though and from the restart, persistent French midfield crash-running and smart short-kicking saw the Frogs pounding the Bokke line and working their way remorselessly downfield. A seemingly inevitable Bokke ruck infringement saw Dupont take a quick tap 10m out from the Bokke try line and at 22min French no2 Mauvaka crashed over wide right. The Ramos conversion was charged down by Kolbe (?!) and the score was 12-12 at 23min.
It was a point a minute at that stage and the intensity was mesmerising.
From the restart, midfield crash and bash by both sides eventually led to a fumble by France in the face of brutally fast Bokke midfield defence. The French fumble was pounced on by Pieter-Steph du Toit for the Bokke and the ball moved via a cheeky chip to Cheslin Kolbe who streaked away down the Bokke left flank to post a brilliant pie at 26min. Libbok sauced from out wide and it was 19-12 Bokke at 28min.
There was no rest for the wicked though as, almost directly from the kickoff, consistent French pressure through their impressive short-kicking game saw another French lineout hard on the Bokke 5m line and, believe it or not, French loosehead Baillie grabbed his second pie from a lineout drive at 31min. Ramos chipped over the conversion and it’s 19-19 at 33min.
The match settled into mutual to and fro for a while at that point until Etzebeth put his considerably large melon into the even larger melon of French no3 Uini Atonio. The result was that Etzebeth ate cheese at 39min which gave Ramos one final penalty shot before oranges. The shot was true and O’Keeffe blew oranges at 22-19 to France.
As predicted, it was the kicking that dominated the game. Libbok’s high ball had the Frogs in all sorts whereas Dupont and Co’s short kicking game was picking the Bokke apart.
H2: France kicked off the second stanza and worked their extra man advantage well to pressure scrums and lineouts and shift play into the Bokke half early. Bokke were doing their best to bleed the clock during Etzebeth’s absence and replacements started to flow at 45min. All up, the Bokke managed the cheese-clock well and they defused any and all enterprising French play until Etzebeth rejoined the match at 49min. By 50min, Saffas essentially had cleared their bench and France had made a number of replacements as well and yet play had doggedly not shifted out of the Bokke half.
Continuing the pressure, from a French fed scrum inside the Bokke quarter at 51min, a scrum penalty advantage came to not much and Dupont elected to take a penalty shot at 53min. Ramos split the sticks and it was 25-19 France at 54min.
The pressure seemed to tell on the Bokke at this stage with little knock-ons and fumbles undoing otherwise great penetrating running by Kwagga Smith and Cheslin Kolbe and as such the match lost speed and descended to a slower, more Bokke-friendly affair. Accordingly, with the benefit of some breathers, the Bokke regathered, refocussed and then forced a brutally powerful scrum penalty at 56min to then set an attacking lineout on the French 5m line. But Bokke fluffed their lines and France forced the turnover to release the pressure.
The quick line breaks of the first stanza were by now well gone, and despite the fresh legs of reserves, the match settled into attritional bash and barge around midfield. This suited the Bokke game better and the French were starting to get somewhat jittery. The hits were brutal, the scrum resets predictable and the water-breaks were increasingly long as the play meandered from quarter line to quarter line.
Then, at 64min after yet another interminable scrum reset in the Bokke half, smart Bokke midfield running, under scrum-penalty advantage, pushed play deep into the French half. Thus Dupont was forced to give away a penalty on the French 5m line under heavy defensive pressure. Surprisingly, Bokke declined both kick and lineout but rather tapped and bashed the French try line repeatedly with heavy runners until Etzebeth crashed over for a pie beside the posts at 66min. Pollard promptly split the sticks and it was 26-25 Bokke at 67min.
Then from the kick-off and seemingly standard kick and runner exchange, ever-green Kwagga Smith won a fantastic breakdown penalty on about halfway for Pollard to take a 3pt shot from just left of centre. The flags were raised and it was 29-25 Bokke at 69min.
France picked up the tempo from the restart and via smart and deceptive running they pressured the Bokke into conceding a midfield penalty. Ramos shot from 30m out, in front and raised the flags at 72min to pull the score back to 29-28 Bokke.
With Bokke starting to drop around the field like so many flies, the match slowed inexorably from that point. And the breaking of rhythm heralded French unforced errors, allowing the Bokke to set up a veritable scrum camp in and around the French quarter as the clock ticked past 75min. The pressure was intense as possession shifted to and fro, seemingly only interrupted by repeated scrum resets.
Finally at 78min, after scrum reset number 764, France broke away and surged upfield into the Saffa half in a last ditch attempt to steal the game. Possession swapped sides in quick hits, but France consolidated possession and were clearly playing for a midfield penalty to set up a last minute winning shot at goal. But the Bokke defence held implacably and a French forward-runner fumble in contact (ripped away by Faf de Klerk) put paid to France’s last endeavour. The clock had ticked 80min when Pollard swooped on the loose ball, clearing to touch, and so ending the French tilt at a home World Cup win.
The Game Changer
The quality of the South African replacements shone through for me, with none better than Kwagga Smith who, playing to referee O’Keeffe’s known penchant to allow loose play at the breakdown, set about his trade with gusto. Their class, big game experience and cohesion saw the Bokke through.
The Man of the Match/Standout Player
Ramos was clinical, Dupont didn’t stop conjuring and Woki was huge for the Frogs. Alternatively, Kwagga Smith was phenomenal for the Bokke especially over the ball in the second half. De Allende and Du Toit punched holes in Frog defence all night and the tight play of the likes of Malherbe was simply inspirational. And among all that, Baille’s double-pie couldn’t be ignored. However, on reflection, Bokke no2 Mbongeni Mbonambi was a deserving winner of the gong.
The Details: Oranges: 22-19 France Final Score: 29-28 Bokke.
Tries: Baille (3min, 31min) Mauvaka (22min)
Conversions: Ramos (4min, 32min miss: 23min)
Penalties: Ramos (40min, 53min, 72min miss: 14min)
Tries: Arendse (8min) de Allende (18min) Kolbe (26min) Etzebeth (66min)
Conversions: Libbok (8min, 27min miss: 19min) Pollard (66min)
Penalties: Pollard (69min) Cards: Etzebeth (39min)