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Destroying the flawed assumptions with the Springboks' loss to Ireland

By Ben Smith
Faf de Klerk of South Africa doesnt convert their kick after being awarded a penalty, after the ball hits the post, during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France on September 23, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Cue the conspiracy theories popping up left, right and centre that we didn’t see the ‘true’ Springboks against Ireland and they were holding back.


There are questions over the decisions to kick for goal over kicking for the corner when they had 15 forwards in the line up to maul.

There are also suggestions that the Springboks “left” 11 points out on the field.

Both are fallacy with flawed logic that becomes clear when you take into account the game situation and how events unfolded.

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The Springboks are notorious for taking the three points when available particularly in a tight contest where points are at a premium.

There was nothing suspicious about the intent to take points, which the match situation demanded they do so.

Faf de Klerk’s first long-range attempt came with the Boks down 7-3 early in the second half.

Jasper Wiese managed to pin an Irish ball carrier and win a holding on penalty for the Springboks just inside their own half. In that six minutes to start the second half they had no possession and were forced to manage an exit situation.

The traffic lights came on from the coaches box to signal a shot at goal. The chance to make it a one point game at 7-6 after a period of play where Ireland had most of the running was irresistible.


They ended up in possibly a better situation than kicking for the corner as the ball hit the post and was recovered by Eben Etzebeth about eight metres out.

Ireland defend for multiple phases before Etzebeth rides the chairlift and is lifted up by James Lowe. Other Irish defenders come in, hold him up, and force a collapsed maul turnover.

At that exact moment, the Springboks unload the 7-1 bench to inject fresh meat for the defensive scrum on Ireland’s five. Both locks, Etzebeth and Franco Mostert sub out, No 8 Wiese also leaves with one front rower Kitshoff.

The decision and timing is a masterstroke.


They turn the screws on Ireland’s feed, win a penalty, call another scrum and Cheslin Kolbe scores their first try. The unpredictable back-and-forth sequence of events ends up in South Africa’s favour massively.

Here is the kicker: if De Klerk makes the penalty kick then Kolbe’s try doesn’t eventuate. The field position and the scrum platform for the try all come from De Klerk’s penalty hitting the post.

Instead of three points they end up with five, but the narrative in the final wash is that we can add back De Klerk’s missed three to the end total plus Libbok’s conversion. Madness.

If you want to add the potential for three back, please subtract five first, and then cancel out the potential for two more from Libbok’s miss as conversions don’t occur without tries.

So already the narrative that the Springboks left 11 points on the field doesn’t hold any weight. They end up in a worse position if De Klerk makes the first penalty.


South Africa’s next penalty attempt at goal came with Ireland up 10-8 after Sexton reclaimed the lead with a regulation kick at goal.

A knock-on by De Allende led to an Irish scrum 40 metres out from their line on the angle. Again another fierce shove by South Africa at the scrum wins a penalty against the feed.

This was the most make-able kick of them all but unfortunately Libbok missed it, shaving the left upright.

Consider the decision-making of taking the shot in this situation.

Would you kick to the corner down by two points with 17 minutes remaining, or take a chance from 40 metres out and 15 metres in to take the lead by 11-10?

It is very reasonable to assume they would want to take the lead and a penalty would do that.

After Libbok’s missed penalty, Ireland clear the ball away downfield from a 22 restart. Kwagga Smith returns the restart near halfway and Ireland are penalised on the very next phase for being offside, leading to De Klerk’s second long-range attempt.

This comes directly from the sequence of play after Libbok’s penalty miss, less than 30 seconds apart. They don’t get the second chance to kick for goal if the first one is made.

If De Klerk made his first long-range attempt, cancelling out the Kolbe try, and Libbok made his penalty, the score would hypothetically be 10-9 in Ireland’s favour.

South Africa don’t kick for goal for the remainder of the game and would still lose but by 13-9.

However, this is an impossible assumption as the sequence of match events has already diverged from our realised sequence of what happened.

Questions were asked why the Springboks changed tact and starting kicking for the corner to go for the maul at the end of the game.

There is only one questionable roll of dice when the score is 10-8 after Pieter-Steph du Toit is tackled near the sideline and the ball is forced out.

Ireland are judged to have ripped it out of Du Toit’s hands and South Africa are awarded the throw.

The Springboks attempt a rolling maul and win a penalty, but turn down a third penalty shot out wide in favour of another maul since they are already in the corner.

This was the first tactical change with faith in the maul greater than their place kickers. There was 10 minutes remaining.

Flanker-turned-hooker Deon Fourie’s throw is not straight and the miscue hands Ireland a scrum. The Springboks give away a short-arm penalty and Ireland escape out of the situation.

Ireland then got ahead by five points, time was running out with three minutes remaining and the Springboks were then forced to chase seven points if they wanted to win.

There is nothing suspect about the way South Africa tried to manage the game and the decisions they made. It was by-the-book of how they would be expected to handle those situations in any other Test.

They tried to kick goals when they arose and when that didn’t work they tried to maul and failed. It is as simple as that.

There is no scenario in which the Springboks making their goals automatically leads to a reversal of the result.

Trying to twist the outcome match with revisionist possibilities is fraught with folly and in this case doesn’t add up to 11 extra points for the Springboks.

All we can say is Ireland won 13-8 and South Africa missed their chances to win, end of.








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