It was 75 days of ups and downs, heat, humidity, sunshine and rain, trials and tribulations, seven wins and one defeat, 303 points, 39 tries and one trophy, standing 38cms tall and weighing 4.5kg.
In this, the third part of our RWC recap, we take a look at what happened in the second half of the Boks' pool matches and how they qualified for the quarter-finals. Part 1 is available here, or click here for Part 2.
TIME FOR PIZZA AND PASTA
The Springboks moved to Shizuoka for this vital game against the Azzurri, but were met with more bad news on the injury front when it emerged that Jesse Kriel’s participation in the RWC had been cut short.
Kriel sustained a hamstring injury in the opening match of the tournament against New Zealand and although the condition improved, the Boks’ medical team ruled it was insufficient to put him in contention for either of the remaining two pool games.
As a result, DHL Stormers utility back Damian Willemse was flown out from England, where he was playing club rugby for Saracens, to Japan.
With Kriel and Nyakane out, Rassie Erasmus was forced to make a few changes to the team that beat New Zealand, while he also promoted front rowers Tendai Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi, as well as Lood de Jager (lock) to the Springboks’ ‘senior’ starting pack for their must-win clash with Italy.
Nyakane was replaced by Vincent Koch, but with Kriel out, Erasmus opted for a six-two split on the Boks’ bench for the first time during the RWC. This would turn out to be a master-stroke in weeks to come.
“Italy have a very good pack and put a lot of effort in their set phases,” said Erasmus. “People may think it is a gamble to have only two back replacements, but we want to have plenty of ammunition for what is likely to be a major forward battle.
“It’s a 23-player game these days and the players who come on will be expected to contribute almost as much in game time as those who start among the front rowers. But for this game we are asking the players we have chosen to start to set the tone.”
Siya Kolisi welcomed the high stakes challenge posed by Italy and said: “Every game is a knockout game for us now – if we slip up we’re out of the competition so we’ve been incredibly focused.”
The execution of the plan was stunted though when Italy lost their two tighthead props to injuries early in the game, resulting in non-contested scrums, while a third front ranker was sent off with a red card for a tip tackle on Duane Vermeulen just after the break.
Still, the Boks were clinical in their execution as they crushed Italy by 49-3, scoring seven tries in the process and keeping a clean sheet for the second match in a row. It was their biggest win over the Azzurri in 18 years and Erasmus gave his team top marks for their physicality.
“We felt in the previous five or six Tests this year it hadn’t been really consistent, but I think in this Test match our physicality – which is one of our strengths – was there consistently throughout the game and I am really proud about that,” said Erasmus.
SEALING THE PLAYOFF DEAL
A short week awaited the Boks as they travelled by bullet train to Kobe on the Saturday after the win over Italy, with only Cheslin Kolbe not absolutely certain to be available for selection for the final pool match against Canada on Tuesday, 8 October, after he twisted his left ankle in the final minutes of the Azzurri match and was withdrawn as a precaution.
Erasmus made 13 changes to their starting XV for the match against Canada to manage the four-day turnaround between the Boks’ last two pool encounters.
Siya Kolisi and Damian de Allende were the only players picked for a second successive start, while five of the replacements from the victory over Italy were promoted to the starting line-up – Frans Steyn, Francois Louw, Franco Mostert, RG Snyman and Vincent Koch.
Erasmus said: “A four-day turnaround between Tests is a challenge but we had planned for it and will be well prepared. This match is just as important as the three that we have already played – it has the same number of log points available and the same impact on our chances of qualifying and we have to now complete the job.”
With his rehabilitation going according to plan, Kolisi said: “My body feels good and I’m really glad to get more minutes. I’ve been injured for quite a bit, but the form is getting better and better and 100 percent I prefer to play – it just feels better.”
Canada gave their all and became one of only three teams to score tries against the Boks in Japan, but they were no match for the South Africans’ ruthlessness on attack and with Cobus Reinach leading the way with the quickest RWC hat-trick, they crushed the Canucks by 66-7.
The win ensured the Boks’ progression to the top eight, but at that stage their opponent was not yet decided – it could have been anyone of Japan, Italy or Scotland.
“I thought we were nice and clinical and decisive, especially with a bunch of guys who haven't played a lot in the last four to five weeks; I thought that was really well done,” said Erasmus after the win against Canada.
“Only conceding one penalty in the first half, and then the second half started bad in a way as we conceded five penalties in the first five minutes. Overall, I thought it was a solid performance, especially in the first half.”