South Africa finished off a memorable 2013 with their first win against France away from home in 16 years – and left their hosts uncertain about what the next 12 months will bring.
From the ovation they got before kickoff, you’d think it was France who’d had an exceptional season, and that the fans were expectant of seeing yet another victory.
But the squad doing its warmup lap around one half of the Stade de France, greeted by each section with cheers and the waving of tricolore flags, had lost seven times out of 10 matches, and weren’t expected to do much better against a Springbok side with an almost opposite record.
Support from the stands didn’t seem to help matters on the pitch. The Marseillaise had barely died on the lips of the French when Morgan Parra’s kick was charged down by JP Pietersen for a try on 60 seconds.
Morné Steyn converted, as the crowd attempted to get over the setback by chanting “allez les bleus” to the players. Seven-nothing down so early, France were going to have to aller pretty hard.
A strong burst through the middle by Wesley Fofana ended with Parra given the chance to make some amends after a spell of French pressure 10 minutes later. But he slipped, Beale-like, on a well-furrowed patch of turf.
It was French brows that were furrowed once more shortly after when fullback Brice Dulin caught a punt and casually tossed it over the head of centre Florian Fritz. France withstood the resulting pressure, but careless hands were costing them lives.
Some handbags in the scrum gave a penalty to South Africa that Steyn put away with customary coolness for 10-0 with 12 minutes to play in the half, prompting a French reaction in the stands with a reprise of the Marseillaise. But Dulin was again finding it hard to hit the right notes as his wafted kick put more pressure on the hosts’ backline.
Just before the interval, another penalty from Steyn made it look like both the scoreboard and the clock were ticking relentlessly away from France, before wing Yoann Huget and second row Pascal Papé combined to win a turnover straight from the restart.
Papé shovelled it to Parra, who got it out to Huget on the wing. His slide in the corner was ruled good after a lengthy referral to the video referee, and Parra succeeded with his toughest kick of the night to reduce South Africa’s lead to 13-7 at half time. “Transformation!” flashed the words on the big screen.
|Huget’s try was awarded after a good look by the video referee as France tried to get back in the game [Reuters]|
With the second half barely underway, it looked like the transformation badly needed for the 2013 edition of this French team was going to elude them.
The first South African attack saw Steyn fumble Ruan Pienaar’s pass over his own head.
It dropped into the path of Jean De Villiers, who scooped it up on the half volley – Steyn’s mistake almost seeming to help his momentum and catch the French off-guard. When he then sent Jaque Fourie over the line, a video referral by referee Wayne Barnes seemed almost a token gesture.
But the man upstairs decided there was a knock-on from Steyn, who having watched a replay that seemed to suggest he was about to have a crack at the conversion, threw the ball away in disgust.
The South Africans were back on the video screens 10 minutes later when it looked certain that Francois Louw would be awarded a try. But Steyn had the ball taken off him again when it was shown that Huget had somehow managed to stretch to get a hand down on the ball first as it bounced over the tryline.
With 20 minutes to go it seemed the game was beyond France anyway and another Steyn penalty made it 16-7, and things got worse when Thomas Domingo was sin-binned for a dump tackle on Bryan Habana.
Socket to him
But numbers were even again when Louw saw yellow for appearing to shove Papé in the eye socket in the scrum, and Jean-Marc Doussain’s penalty put France within a converted try of a win.
Frédéric Michalak was brought on at fly half as the French turned to the old guard to try to end the season with a flourish, but he could only watch as Pat Lambie struck another South Africa penalty to seal the game 19-10.
“The South Africans are not the second best team in the world by chance,” coach Philippe Saint-André said afterwards, when asked if the team had taken a step back since running New Zealand close two weeks ago.
“In last six games we played the All Blacks four times and Springboks once and lost all those, so we know what we must do to get up a level.
“The players were very brave but when you award a team a try in the first minute, it made us very nervous. We made too many mistakes to be able to win this game.”
The Marseillaise rang round the Stade de France again as France took a rueful lap of honour at the end.
But as they filed into the changing rooms, it was the flag of the Rainbow Nation that waved in the stands, and South Africa who held the field for the first time since 1997.
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