The atmosphere at the Orange Velodrome buzzed with the warm air of thousands of Springbok and Tongan fans on Sunday night as the two sides lined up to take part in the final of their World Cup pool stage matches.
Springbok fans remained confident ahead of the match with their team fully expectant to proceed to the quarter-finals whilst Tonga remained hopeful that they could recreate their exploits from 2007 and push the current world champions to their limits.
Once again the build-up to kick-off was illuminated by the lights of tens of thousands of phones, as fans created the style of arena that often proceeds that of a pop concert.
The crowd cheered on Tonga from the kickoff, with the Pacific Island team emitting solid early pressure on the favourites – an effort that led them to take a quick lead through the boot of William Havilli.
On the flip of the rugby ball-shaped coin, Handre Pollard had returned to help the Springboks gain some control on the scoreline with his trusty boot. It wasn’t long before the flyhalf showed what the Springboks had been missing as he slotted a beautiful touchline conversion after Cobus Reinach touched down for their first.
Tonga continued to play hard and fast, battering into the Springbok line with huge ferocity, forcing the Springboks back beyond their own line on multiple occasions. Despite the increased pressure, the lack of ‘Tier 1’ efficacy was evident as the Tongans failed to gain anything more than a ‘good effort’ badge from their prolonged pressure.
They came close multiple times, however. The looped balls out wide often kept the Springboks short, and even a misjudged cross-field kick left Willie Le Roux red faced and almost behind on the scoreboard.
The vibrant crowd was array with chants of ‘Tonga, Tonga, Tonga’, embodying the arena as the team in red continued to press. The neutral standpoint was clearly in the underdogs favour as an eruption of shrill jeers sounded around the stadium when South Africa won a penalty to retake control of the game.
— Jack Tunney (@JackTunneyRugby) October 2, 2023
This led to the Springboks having their first solid passage of play in control of the game, and following a chink in play as the ball ricocheted off Vincent Koch’s head, Moodie reacted quickest to collect the ball and canter under the sticks.
The game continued with Tonga struggling to take the points when they were available to them and came under immense pressure as the South Africans started to assert their dominance. Tonga started to make elementary mistakes as the pressure told, but they still had an impact to make. Ben tameifuna dropped over the try line at 151kg – no one stopping the big man from such a short distance.
Makazole Mapimpi was a forced replacement for the Springboks, as he took a hard head collision which has since been confirmed to have resulted in a fractured cheek.
As the second half commenced, a miskick that went good from Fine Inisi may have signaled Tongan fortunes for the half.
It didn’t continue that way, however, as as consistent play and a hard line from Pollard allowed the Springboks to get their bonus point. That was to be Pollards final action in the game as he was replaced by Libbok in 50th minute. Jeers from fans reared their ugly head over the Libbok replacement…not deserving considering his open play abilities. His goal kicking has been under severe scrutiny, but he was fantastic from the tee on this night.
The second biggest roar of the evening went to Inisi as he dived over in the corner for a terrific Tonga try, whilst the biggest roar of the night was saved for Ben Tamaifuna as he headed off to take his rest.
In a hugely physical game, the Springboks continued to signal their intentions as they nudged an easily kickable penalty to the corner midway through the second half. Willie Le Roux rolled back the years as he collected the ball one handed to slalom to the try line.
Tonga refused to bow down as they continued to fight back against the South African onslaught. The incredible fitness regime of the springboks has started to tell, however.
There was still gas in the old Tongan machine however, as absolute magic from Pat Pellegrini saw him collect the ball following a wonderful individual bit of skill from the boot – a move that brought the crowd to their feet.
Tonga really came alive again with just six minutes remaining. This team have so much more to give. The talent is there, the potential is clear to see, they just aren’t clinical enough. They need to be supported by the wider governing bodies and given access to better coaches, and better facilities at club and international level if they are to improve in the long run.
The scoreline was about right. South Africa were quality even if they were not exceptional. The Springboks did everything that Tonga did, just better. They were excellent in the rough, they were powerful, and they were clinical in the moments that was required.
The response from the Tongan coach and captain in the press conference was that of pride. Although Toutai Kefu would have preferred the result, he admitted that he was proud of the teams performance that saw South Africa concede as many tries in this match as they had done in the past nine.
The Springboks were confident in their questioning, with Siya Kolisi appearing relaxed, whilst Eben Etzebeth, Reinach, and others greeted the press with wide smiles afterward.
Tonga have one match remaining against Romania, as they look to send their fans home with big smiles on their faces.