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Springboks heroism shone through the chaos of Marseille

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa's players react after losing the Autumn Nations Series rugby union test match between France and South Africa at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille on November 12, 2022. (Photo by Sylvain THOMAS / AFP) (Photo by SYLVAIN THOMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

It washed over us like a gathering storm. A cacophony of sound that rattled glass and steel and bones. Down below an electric light show like a thousand lightning bolts jolted the senses. Relentless, breathtaking, terrifying, it felt as if the Fédération Française de Rugby had summoned all the world’s elemental forces just for our entertainment.

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There was still half an hour to go before kick-off at the Velodrome. If this was the foreplay, what would the main event make us feel?

No wonder Fabian Glathie’s team has won 12 Tests in a row. How does any visiting team stand a chance against them when their home crowd gives them that sort of welcome? Send out 15 ravenous lions and they’d tear lumps out of them as well.

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The Springboks appeared overawed by the occasion. Uncharacteristic handling errors marred their opening 10 minutes. This was billed as a battle of two superpowers. The world champions against the champions-elect. Rugby’s tectonic plates were shifting beneath our feet.

Then Pieter-Steph du Toit clattered Jonathan Danty’s head with his own. The partisan crowd had been boisterous and bouncy before then. When replays of the sickening blow were shown on the big screen, they turned feral. Like the savage mob at Rome’s Colosseum, they bayed for blood. They’d have to satisfy themselves with a red card for the South African.

That would have been that for lesser teams. The Springboks might not be everyone’s favourite team (and they know it) but few could deny their spirit in the face of adversity.

Even before Rassie Erasmus so brilliantly tethered his rugby squad to the socioeconomic struggles of the country they represented, the Springboks have been a beacon for a fractured society still searching for unity. This is a team that leans into a challenge, welcoming the abrasions that come with a good scrap.

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And this was a scrap, one to rival any heavyweight title bout. Forget the Thriller in Manilla. This was the Melee in Marseille.

That this was still a contest across 80 minutes with South Africa a man short for 46 of them was thanks to two key protagonists: Willie le Roux and Eben Etzebeth.

The latter’s reputation is as rock solid as his enormous biceps. The former, though, has been battling his critics for the better part of nine years since his debut. At various stages of his career he’s been accused of being too slow, too inconsistent, too unreliable under the high ball, too soft in the tackle. Last week when Cheslin Kolbe started at fullback there was the small chance that we’d never see Le Roux in Bok green again.

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But his display in the defeat to Ireland in Dublin showed that he is unrivalled in his ability to identify and exploit space, at least when compared with the rest of his teammates. He wasn’t flawless against France, but it was as close as he’s come for some time.

He had the ball on a string. Whether kicking off his surgical boots or flinging passes from laser-sighted hands, he put it exactly where it needed to go. It wasn’t just his flat fizzing try-assist for Kurt-Lee Arendse on the right wing. Wherever he went, so too did the Springboks’ chances of a remarkable victory.

As for Etzebeth, well, how many different ways can one describe the might of Table Mountain? How many synonyms are there for words like towering, imposing and immovable? He carried for 42 metres, more than any other forward on the field. After the loss of Du Toit, Etzebeth recognised that he’d have to perform to the level of two players to compensate for the deficit. He more than fulfilled the brief.

There were others who left with their reputations enhanced. Siya Kolisi put in a captain’s shift, scoring the first try and bounding about the pitch as if there was more than just a rugby match on the line. Malcom Marx showed why he has a claim to being the best hooker in the world and three different goal kickers nailed all six of their shots at goal.

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Some familiar talking points emerged after the whistle with the streets of Marseille, awash in both green and blue, picking at old bones in broken English and rusty French. Wayne Barnes seems to unite both sets of supporters as neither group was particularly pleased with the referee’s interpretation of events. Sipili Falatea’s decisive try at the death had more than a hint of a double movement and a different official on a different night might have overruled the score.

Erasmus’ name filtered through the Sunday morning air as hungover faces exchanged knowing nods between sips of coffee. South Africa’s director of rugby once again took to Twitter in the aftermath of the game. With a tone that can be generously described as passive-aggressive, he praised the victors while taking a swipe at Barnes across two separate tweets.

They are easily found elsewhere and won’t be repeated here. What is worth stating is that Erasmus’ behaviour is an insult to the players who couldn’t have given a better account of themselves in the most hostile stadium they’d have played in since their World Cup win three years ago.

The boos and whistles that greeted Damian Willemse as he stood up to kick a penalty must have woken up sleeping children across the city. The French public wanted this. Their team had beaten every other top nation in the past 18 months. Now they have the full set and the ideal launchpad for a tilt at the Webb Ellis Cup next year.

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As for South Africa, they’ll take many positives from this setback. Seven forwards dominated the much-vaunted French pack. They seem to have remedied their ailments from the kicking tee. And Le Roux’s form is something to build a cohesive plan around.

They may no longer be the number one team in the world, but they’ve shown they can mix it with the best. They’ll remember that next time they visit France. The rugby gods have placed the Springboks on the more difficult side of the World Cup draw. A quarterfinal clash with France is a very real possibility.

One wonders what pyrotechnics the party planners have in store for such an occasion.

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