Resilient Springboks Ruin Host France’s Dream in the Quarterfinals at the Rugby World Cup

AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
South Africa’s team players celebrate as they won the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match between France and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023.

PARIS (AP) — The Springboks were at their most stubborn to wreck France’s dream at the Rugby World Cup on Sunday.

The defending champions dug deeper than normal for one of their most resilient performances to knock the highly-rated French out of their home World Cup by a riveting 29-28 in the quarterfinals in front of nearly 80,000 fans at Stade de France.

“For all the support we’ve had, it’s heartbreaking,” France flanker Charles Ollivon said.

France played all the attacking rugby for the first hour, and the crowd loved it, leaving South Africa to feed off crumbs and cling on before suddenly swinging the momentum in the final 13 minutes when lock Eben Etzebeth made up for an earlier yellow card by barging over near the posts.

That put South Africa ahead for the first time since a breathless, six-try opening 30 minutes.

While France came within a point of the Springboks at the end, their great hopes of a first title, and clinching it at home, slipped away when replacement prop Reda Wardi lost possession in a last, desperate attack after the clock ticked past 80 minutes.

The French were stunned, none more than brilliant scrumhalf and captain Antoine Dupont, who made it back from a broken cheekbone in the pool stage to lead his country. His return was meant to be triumphant, but at the end the world’s best player slipped down on one knee and tossed his protective scrumcap on the grass in despair.

“That will make us learn. But today, it’s hard to take,” Dupont said. “A lot of frustration.”

No. 2-ranked France had a two-year, 18-test winning streak at home and was the highest-ranked team left in the tournament, but the French are still without a title and this failure will perhaps hurt more than any of the others, even the lost finals on foreign soil in 1987, 1999 and 2011.

“We’re going to try to find something positive by saying that we have a lot of young players, a fine generation,” France flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert said. “But the reality is that today we failed to get out of the quarterfinals of a home World Cup. That’s going to be hard to accept.”

France President Emmanuel Macron went into the French dressing room after the game to console the players, many of whom looked inconsolable.

Both teams scored three tries in that scintillating start. France’s were all the result of its magnificent attack. The Springboks’ three all came against the run of play. France appeared world-class in those opening minutes and every inch the new favorite for the title after top-ranked Ireland’s exit to three-time champion New Zealand on Saturday, and South Africa looked a little shell-shocked.

“We scrambled a lot, especially when we were short of numbers,” Springboks captain Siya Kolisi said. “We talk about chasing lost causes as a group, we don’t give up until they put the ball down over the tryline.

“If we hadn’t done that, we would be going home tomorrow. We never give up.”

France’s first try came as early as the fourth minute when prop Cyril Baille scored the first of his two after a French maul went 20 meters and he was out near the right corner for the finish. Kurt-Lee Arendse profited off a French mistake when Gael Fickou dropped a high kick and broke away to reply for South Africa.

Damian de Allende’s score for the Springboks, again from a turnover, put them 12-7 up in the 18th, a scarcely believable scoreline considering the French dominance.

France had 74% of the territory in the first 40 minutes and 63% overall. South Africa had to make nearly twice as many tackles.

Hooker Peato Mauvaka went over for France’s second try to make it 12-12, with Cheslin Kolbe sprinting out to charge down Thomas Ramos’ attempted conversion.

AP Photo/Thibault Camus
South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe races to score his side’s third try during the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match between France and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023.

South Africa hit France on a sudden break again, with left wing Kolbe speeding onto a kick through and leaving France star Damian Penaud in his wake to score. Baille’s second try and a penalty by Ramos on the stroke of halftime after Etzebeth had been sin-binned for a head-on-head tackle appeared to be the moment France took control. Ramos added another penalty soon after halftime for 25-19 and some breathing space.

The lead was narrow, but Dupont was pulling the strings and the home fans were driving Les Tricolores on.

The Springboks kept grinding despite that big territorial disadvantage and Etzebeth’s powerful run to crash over made it 26-25 with replacement flyhalf Handre Pollard’s conversion.

A Pollard penalty from inside his own half in the 69th gave the Boks a critical four-point advantage, and a chance of defending their title for at least one more game. France kept coming and South Africa held out for good this time, allowing Ramos only one more penalty.

France attacked from deep in the last play of the game after the final hooter. After 10 phases, the ball was stripped from Wardi by RG Snyman and Faf de Klerk, and Arendse scooped it up and hoofed it out to confirm a semifinal against England next weekend.

New Zealand will play Argentina in the other semi, meaning three southern hemisphere teams in the last four and favorite Ireland and home hope France out, a huge turn-up for a Rugby World Cup where a northern triumph appeared destined.

AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
France’s Dorian Aldegheri, right, reacts after the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match between France and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023.