Blundering Boks book finals berth

From Dave James in Lens
September 23, 2007

SOUTH Africa was given the fright of its life before ensuring a place in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals with an error-strewn 30-25 win over Tonga in Lens.

Springboks coach Jake White almost paid an embarrassing price for making 11 changes to the side that defeated England 36-0 and putting his faith in his B team, which hadn't played a competitive match for a month.

But he made sweeping changes having seen his second-string side slip 10-7 behind early in the second half, bringing on his entire bench including full back Percy Montgomery, who won a record-breaking 90th cap.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup champion also scored four tries to make sure of the bonus point that guaranteed top spot in Pool B and a quarter-final tie, probably against Wales, in Marseille on October 7.

But it was Tonga, who scored three tries of their own and picked up a bonus point for keeping the margin of defeat to less then seven points, who earned a post-match standing ovation from the crowd.

"It was one of the magical moments for us today," Tonga coach Quddus Fielea said. "It hasn't sunk in. It was a fantastic performance from our players. When we saw the kind of team they were putting out, we just decided to have a go at them."

Tonga captain Nili Latu praised his team for fighting fire with fire. "They had power and speed so we knew that we had to be smart if we were to beat them," Latu said. "We knew that if we got in their faces, they wouldn't like it."

White praised Tonga. "I'm very relieved," he said. "All credit to Tonga, they were outstanding."

But White insisted that he wasn't too concerned even when Tonga went in front. "We just missed a few kicks at the posts early on and had opportunities for tries but dropped the ball. We could have been 20 points ahead at the break."

Tonga nipped ahead after nine minutes when Pierre Hola kicked a penalty awarded for offside before South Africa fly half Andre Pretorius squandered two penalties of his own.

The Springboks grabbed the first try of the match in the 18th minute, when Tonga was caught napping after being penalised for not staying on the feet.

Full back Ruan Pienaar took a quick tap and darted over with Pretorius kicking the extras to make the score 7-3. Tonga was then denied a try after prop Soane Tonga'uiha turned up on the left wing to dive over, his effort was ruled out by English referee Wayne Barnes for a forward pass.

Pretorius then missed his third penalty before the Springboks' untidy opening was embarrassingly illustrated. First, Wynand Olivier threw a wayward pass to Ashwin Willemse with the wing in sight of the line. Then, in their next attack, Willemse allowed the ball to slip from his grasp with a try there for the taking. Hola squandered a chance to cut the deficit to 7-6 with a wayward penalty just before the interval.

But there was still time for another Springboks error, with prop C.J. van der Linde losing the ball courtesy of a crunching tackle from Latu as he charged for the line. Tonga dramatically stormed into the lead four minutes after the interval when prop Kisi Pulu was driven over and Hola added the extra points to make the score 10-7.

White reacted immediately by making five changes bringing on regular skipper Jon Smit, Brendan Botha, Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and Francois Steyn.

Pretorius's miserable afternoon continued when he missed his fourth penalty before flanker Danie Rossouw was taken from the field on a stretche with his neck in a brace. Steyn took over kicking duties and he brought South Africa level at 10-10.

Juan Smith, who replaced Rossouw, then eased Springboks nerves with his side's second try in the 59th minute, with Montgomery, who had come on for the hapless Pretorius and passed Joost van der Westhuizen's mark of 89 caps, kicking the conversion for 17-10.

Stand-in skipper Bobby Skinstad scored for 22-10 and Pienaar then finished off a sweeping move to make it 27-10.

South Africa was down to 13 men at one stage, with Steyn and Habana sin-binned, while Tonga wing Joseph Vaka was also yellow-carded.

In a breath-taking second-half, centre Sukanaivalu Hufanga reduced the deficit with a try in the corner before the islanders stunned South Africa with another try from lock Vilamai Vaki, who won a sprint to the line to cap a move that started deep in Tonga territory from a Hola crossfield kick.
Hola kicked the conversion to make the score 27-22.

Montgomery landed a penalty, awarded after Tonga collapsing a maul, to edge his side to 30-22 before Hola grabbed another penalty.

Agence France-Presse