Rugby World Cup 2007
South Africa edge out Tonga
September 22, 2007
Ruan Pienaar beats the Tonga defence to score a second-half try
© Getty Images
South Africa survived a scare to edge Tonga 30-25 in arguably the best game of the 2007 Rugby World Cup so far in Lens. South Africa made it three wins out of three in Pool A but were forced to survive a real scare against fired-up Tonga in Lens today.
The Springboks were being held at 10-10 with 21 minutes to go, but tries by Juan Smith, Bobby Skinstad and Ruan Pienaar - his second of the match - pulled them clear. The Tongans, who had 10 points from fly-half Pierre Hola, scored late tries through Sukanaivalu Hufanga and Viliami Vaki, but the South Africans just about held on to stay top of the group.
South Africa and Tonga were looking to maintain their 100% records when they met in the Lens sunshine. The Springboks, fresh from impressive victories over Samoa and England, started as heavy favourites to make it three wins out of three.
Coach Jake White was confident enough to rest most of his big names as he made 11 changes to the side that smashed the English 36-0 in Paris eight days ago. Only JP Pietersen, Bakkies Botha, Wickus van Heerden and Danie Roussow were retained, but the likes of Victor Matfield, John Smit and star winger Bryan Habana were on the bench in case of emergency.
Tonga, who will challenge England for a quarter-final berth following triumphs against the United States and Samoa in the past fortnight, came into the game on a roll. Last Sunday's 19-15 win over the Samoans, their fellow Pacific Islanders, was something of a shock and coach Quddus Fielea kept faith with 11 of the players who started that game.
In the one previous game between the two countries, in Cape Town in 1997, South Africa emerged 74-10 winners but the early stages here suggested this would be a more even match. Tonga started at a super-charged pace, their kicking game spot on and their tackles typically ferocious.
And it was they who took the lead, Pierre Hola booting a ninth-minute penalty to put his side 3-0 up. Hands in the ruck by captain Nili Latu gifted the Springboks the chance to restore parity but fly-half Andre Pretorius missed a sitter from in front of the posts, 30 yards out.
The Lions number 10 had an opportunity to make amends in the 15th minute when Tonga pulled down a maul but again he was off target, his skew to the left from the diagonal inducing jeers from the crowd.
The Springboks did get on the board moments later though, full-back Ruan Pienaar taking a quick tap from a penalty and sprinting past a sleepy defence to go over in the left corner. Pretorius converted to make it 7-3.
Hola botched a 22nd-minute drop-goal attempt for the Tongans, who were giving as good as they were getting up front. And they almost snatched the lead back in the 24th minute when Soane Tonga'uiha received Hola's floated mis-pass to ghost in on the left flank.
Unfortunately, the pass was adjudged forward by English referee Wayne Barnes but it served as a scare for the Springboks. Pretorius missed his third penalty in a row - again from a central position - but the 1995 world champions were slowly starting to take a grip on proceedings as they found spaces out wide, with JP Pietersen looking especially dangerous.
And they should have grabbed their second try in the 32nd minute but Wynand Olivier's pass to Ashwin Willemse, who was in the clear eight yards out, went astray. Willemse had another chance moments later but fumbled when stretching to ground in the right corner Hola missed a long-range penalty shot in the 37th minute but the Tongans were still in touch at the break.
Hola missed a drop-goal at the start of the second half, but before long his side were back in front. Good work by Epi Taione and Finau Maka created the opening and Latu took the ball on. A few more phases of rumbling, attacking thrusts ended with former Coventry prop Kisi Pulu barging over, with Hola adding the extras.
At 10-7 down after 44 minutes, White reacted by throwing on the emergency cavalry and Smit, BJ Botha, Matfield, Habana and Francois Steyn all came off the bench. Pretorius' wretched day with the boot continued in the 48th minute when he was off target with a 25-metre three-pointer, his fourth penalty miss of the afternoon.
The South Africans then suffered a blow when they had Rossouw carried off on a stretcher, to be replaced by Juan Smith. But the scores were soon level at 10-10 when Steyn, taking over kicking duties from Pretorius, landed a 45-yarder.
Facing a real upset, South Africa clicked up a gear in the 58th minute and took the lead for the second time. First Habana, then Gurthro Steenkamp powered forward and with gaps in the defence, Smith eluded a tackle to dive over from five yards. Percy Montgomery converted and it was 17-10.
Bobby Skinstad scored the Springboks' third try, putting the finishing touch in the right corner to a superb length-of-the-field move that included numerous offloads. A scrap involving Steyn and Joseph Vaka in the build-up to the try saw both players sin-binned.
The South Africans were at it again in the 65th minute, exchanging passes freely in a move that started 20 metres from their own try-line and Pienaar popped up on the right wing to dive over for his second of the game. Montgomery missed both conversions but the game was now out of Tonga's reach at 27-10.
Habana was sin-binned for cynically preventing release of the ball in a ruck, and he was made to pay when Hola directed a cross-field punt for Sukanaivalu Hufanga to catch and ground in the left corner. The score needed the say-so of the video referee and Hola missed the conversion.
With the Springboks down to 13 men, Tonga sniffed a chance and amazingly they pulled to within five points in the 72nd minute when Tevita Tu'ifua and Lilo combined before Viliami Vaki hacked on to dive over under the posts. Hola converted for 27-22. A 76th-minute Montgomery penalty allowed White's side to breathe easier, but Hola replied with one of his own to make it 30-25.
South Africa (7) 30
Tonga (3) 25