The South African Under-20 team overcame a committed France team in front of their home crowd to record a third successive victory and clinch a place in the Junior World Championship semi-finals with a 26-19 victory (halftime 8-7) in La Roche-sur-Yon on Thursday.
The Junior Springboks twice trailed in the match – and were matched for tries, three-all – but they showed tremendous defensive commitment and character to resist a home nation desperate to record a significant victory in their campaign, having already lost to England.
South Africa also had the cool head and accurate boot of Handré Pollard to thank for their win. He kicked four from six kicks at poles, including an awkward penalty ten minutes from the final whistle, to nose the Junior Boks ahead on both occasions they fell behind.
South Africa made the perfect start, scoring a try within the first minute of play. The Junior Springboks won two rucks on the French 10-metre line before moving the ball wide to the right where centre Dries Swanepoel made a slashing midfield break from 35 metres out and used two players outside him to dummy his way to the line, his momentum carrying him over the line as he was tackled five metres short of the line. Handré Pollard missed the conversion.
The lead was short lived as the Junior Springboks suffered the novel experience of falling behind in a match in the championship for the first time. They were attempting a rare attack in the first half when Luther Obi’s ambitious reverse pass behind his back drifted forward into the hands of French flank Yacouba Camara. He freed centre Thibault Regard to bustle in from halfway. Enzo Selponi’s conversion gave France a one-point lead.
France had all the momentum – and were to retain it throughout the opening half – but South Africa regained the lead in the 14th minute – the final score of the half. A typically mesmerising break by Cheslin Kolbe to the heart of the French defence, 35 metres out, saw his eventual tackler declining to roll away. Pollard sent a good penalty rifling through the poles to give South Africa an 8-7 lead.
More Kolbe brilliance allowed South Africa to begin the second half as they had the first. Within two minutes of the restart right wing Luther Obi dotted down in the corner after Kolbe’s shimmy and dart, concluding with a pass round the back of his tackler. It gave Obi a tip-toeing run down the touchline before planting the ball one handed as he was hustled into the corner flag.
Pollard’s kicking woes looked to be well behind him as he converted from the touchline and added a penalty two minutes later to make it 18-7 to the Junior Springboks.
However, the pattern of the first half continued to be repeated as France scored their second try within seven minutes of the Junior Boks’ score. The defence was stretched right and then left where eighthman Marco Tauleigne held onto a fingertip pass from Camara to score in the corner under the attention of two defenders. Selponi’s conversion attempt was short and wide.
France’s scrum and maul began to make inroads and a burst from hooker Christopher Tolofua followed up by loosehead Cyril Baille set up field position under the South African poles for Baptiste Serin to pick up and score from a ruck two metres out. The replacement scrumhalf converted his own try to give his team a one-point lead with 16 minutes remaining.
France’s joy was short lived. Six minutes later South Africa set up field position with a lineout just outside the French 22 and when the home side infringed, Pollard coolly slotted a far from straightforward kick from the left-hand side.
South Africa controlled field position in the final ten minutes – playing some of their best rugby of the match – and it was fitting that another dazzling break from Kolbe should conclude the match. The fullback picked up from a ruck on the 22 and danced in untouched to complete a satisfactory evening.
South Africa – Tries: Dries Swanepoel, Luther Obi, Cheslin Kolbe. Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (3).
France – Tries: Thibault Regard, Marco Tauleigne, Baptiste Serin. Conversions: Enzo Selponi, Serin.