The Roar
The Roar


The defence never rests: Too strong up front, too fast out back, Springboks march on with a Marseille mugging

11th September, 2023
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11th September, 2023
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Just outside the Velodrome, a pack of Frenchmen asked if I would scrum with them, against them. Swallowing my pride at being viewed as a prop, I bound and engaged. We had a 20-second grapple. The audience, heavily Bloemfontein and Braamfontein, watched with undue interest, bored of beers in the sun, commenting on who was to blame for going down on to the street.

French fans take scrums seriously.

As we posed for the obligatory photograph, post-set piece, a ginger Scot pranced in, flipped his kilt up, and joined our picture with his Hibernian moon full and glowing in the afternoon heat. He did the same for his own compatriots and me, and appeared to be willing to keep exposing his haggis indefinitely, but it was time to scale the steps and get into the real match.

This was for all purposes a knockout: how could the Scots hope to have the horses at the end to take on Ireland. Old-fashioned South Africa, who had not read the Russell-Townsend memo, were the obvious target.

Earlier, at the Old Port, over mussels and rose, four Scots told me their team would win “because our South Africans are better than yours.” Good line, but Frans Malherbe ended up with more line breaks than Duhan van der Merwe, and the scrums went the way they normally do when these teams lock down.

In a Cup we were told would usher in a new era of blazing attack and record scoring, with scrums down and rucks up, the hosts and the champions are both staking a contrary claim for accuracy in set piece and ruck destruction.

On opening night, in swampy Paris, resolute France took the space and then the time from New Zealand’s game breakers. Eighty-four kicks peppered the heavy air; both teams barely managed to build 60 rucks. The French use all three loose forwards interchangeably, but get over the gainline (more than half the time) with their numbers eight and 12. Old school; but also, they were only penalised four times.


Victors England and Australia also put boot to ball 40-plus times.

Marseille offered us an even starker contrast: Finn Russell’s marauders can score on anyone, from anywhere. Gregor Townsend has mantras, dicta, elegies, but no doctrines. Exits are entrances for the Jocks.

Scotland has embraced time-in-play, keep the ball alive, and organised chaos more than any other top five team.

Their vaunted attack would face the ultimate test of rugby fitness: a fit and firing Springbok rush umbrella defense. The sharp end of the brolly is flying Faf de Klerk, shampoo and speedo commercials put on hold, whose job it is to split the field in half. Out wide, Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse fly in and up, offering fool’s gold to their sides.

In the middle, two- and three-Cup Boks ram and grip and disintegrate the ruck.

Too strong up front and too fast out back. The South African slow poison method is a rough hard stool built on three legs.

RG Snyman of South Africa passes the ball during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Scotland at Stade Velodrome on September 10, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

RG Snyman of South Africa passes the ball during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Scotland at Stade Velodrome on September 10, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)


Power, pace and … precision. Make your kicks; tries later.

The first two were apparent. The Boks crossed the gainline about 55 times of a hundred or so. Scotland: one in four.

When they make a break, the speed edge was clearly for South Africa, who embraced the weather as merely a nice day in Durban (a line given to me by commentator Schalk Burger, who did have to mop his growing brow several times pre-shoot).

So, the kicking.

Could Russell win his duel with newcomer Manie Libbok?

During the second half blitz, Libbok pulled off the most Finn play of all: a no-look deadeye kick pass leading Arendse perfectly to yet another untouched try, after a brutal counter-ruck.

Degree of difficulty? Off the charts.


Calm: immense. A baller.

But the tee is still a problem with Leicester-training and one hour train ride away Handre Pollard’s name all over it. Faf had to take over, nailing a kick from the very same place he practiced 40 times before the match.

Defence is still king, wins will be based on the boot, and this Cup will be old school, in the most traditional of rugby strongholds.

At halftime, with the score just 6-3, based entirely on pack skirmishes, a big boy from Pretoria tangled with a large lad from Perth (from beyond Hadrian’s Wall) and reenacted the last wheeling scrum, just outside the remarkably large and convenient loo.

With 25 minutes to go, and the Boks winning yet another turnover, the game was accomplished, and the fans in green (and rainbows) were mugging for the French kiss-cam, even two big boys from Cape Town.

Bathrooms and beer have been easy to get to, but for a land known for food, it has been very difficult to feed 50,000 carnivorous Saffas and 20,000 hairy Scots.


“But it is Sunday,” the locals say, with a pizza oven just behind them.

No matter.

The streets steamed and streamed with Saffas and Jocks drinking together and dancing awkwardly, deep into the night and then Monday morning.

“It’s Monday! Can you give us a chicken?” I heard a veldskoen Boer cheek to the barman.

Fuelled by victory or defeat, everyone turned analyst. Rugby fans all love to understand the why.

Defence still wins.

Three points for the hottest attack of the North bears witness.


Exhibit D.