The Springboks brought some needed relief from the negativity that has engulfed South African rugby in the past week by scoring a hard-fought but nail-biting 18-17 win over France at Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night.

It wasn’t pretty and neither was it particularly convincing but, after last week’s abjectly poor performance against Ireland, a win by any margin was of crucial importance to the tour. It was understandable then that the final whistle, with the Boks leading by just that solitary point, was greeted with elation (or was it relief?) by a South African team that has been under the kosh from the critics back home.

France aren’t exactly world beaters at the moment, so any tendency towards euphoria from the Bok fans would be misplaced. The French are languishing on the world rankings and it was a poor game played between two teams that made several mistakes and were far from technically sharp.

However, it was only the second win scored away from home under Allister Coetzee as coach and, while it shouldn’t necessarily be enough to remove the question marks over the current mentor’s right to continue in his job, it should at least help save this tour from descending into the mess that we saw on the corresponding trip last year.

There was only one point in it in the end as France’s replacement scrumhalf Baptiste Seratin scored a late try that ensured a nervy last three minutes for the Boks. But the South Africans should have had the victory wrapped up long before then. They were held up on the night by a poor place-kicking performance from Handre Pollard, who missed out on 11 points from the kicking tee.

Pollard did though deliver a strong performance in general play and with Francois Venter playing well in his comeback game, there was more direction in the back play than there was in Dublin seven days ago. Although the Boks still take the ball too deep and there were too many passes that were misdirected and fell behind the players, and this meant that the gainline was seldom breached, it was an improvement on last week.

The platform for the win was laid through a strong forward performance in the first part of the opening half. The Boks gained an early physical ascendancy that helped them to an 8-0 lead after 17 minutes. At that point the visitors looked like they might bounce back from Dublin with a compelling performance and convincing victory.

The first Bok try was well constructed and it started off an impressive scrum near the halfway line in the seventh minute. Wing Courtnall Skosan made the initial inroads into the French defence and helped his team get behind the French. The Bok forwards played their part in carrying the ball upfield before it was released to the right and wing Dillyn Leyds wriggled over.

The conversion that Pollard missed wasn’t particularly difficult but he made amends with his penalty and with the Bok forwards being direct and carrying well, it looked like the French might be in for a long 80 minutes. From an early stage it was also apparent that the Boks had injected more line-speed into their defence, though they weren’t always organised and sometimes it looked like they were a bit sporadic in coming up.

The defensive system has taken some flak this week and it was better in this game. However, there were still stages of the match when they were poor, and the “put your bodies on the line” attitude of earlier in the year appeared to go west in the latter stages of the first half.

The defence was too passive when the French swarmed onto the attack in the 27th minute en route to scoring a try through flyhalf Anthony Belleau where Jesse Kriel missed a tackle as glaring as the one he missed against Japan in the infamous World Cup defeat in Brighton in 2015.

Belleau converted to make it a one-point game but he also didn’t have his kicking boots completely laced on and missed a kick seven minutes later that would have given his team the lead. But Pollard missed a kick too before the break, and then two more in the early stages of the second half. Belleau landed one not long after the restart to put his team into the lead for the first time at 10-8.

The decisive stage of the game coincided with the yellow carding of Serin, who had just come onto the field when referee Nigel Owens dispatched him for a cynical early tackle on Malcolm Marx near the hour mark. Pollard kicked the penalty to reclaim the lead for the Boks and then came a try that was scored by Jesse Kriel but which was questionable enough to have the TMO deliberating for several minutes.

Eben Etzebeth, who led from the front and was along with Marx and Wilco Louw the best member of a South African pack that edged the physical battle, looked like he might have touched the ball after a French defender had knocked it back, in which case it would have been a knock-on. But Owens, after much deliberation, saw it differently and awarded the try that ensured that the Boks were more than a score ahead for most of the final quarter.

It was a mediocre game and that would be the best way to describe the two teams, but the Boks will be relieved to be travelling to Italy for their next match on this tour with a win under their belt and the memories of Dublin at least partially erased. It would be naïve though to suggest the negativity should be completely swept away as it was a long way from being a good performance.


South Africa 18 – Tries: Dillyn Leyds and Jesse Kriel; Conversions: Handre Pollard; Penalties: Handre Pollard 2.

France 17 – Tries: Anthony Belleau and Baptiste Serin; Conversions: Anthony Belleau 2; Penalty: Anthony Belleau