JOHANNESBURG – Sometimes you’ve just got to take the win – even an ugly one – and move on.
That’s what the Springboks will have done here on Saturday as they produced arguably their scrappiest performance of this three-Test series against France, but still came away as comfortable winners.
Allister Coetzee’s men scored four tries and kept France tryless, but it wasn’t a pretty performance and won’t be remembered for anything special.
It was, however, the Boks’ third against the visitors this June, ensuring a series clean-sweep which gives coach Allister Coetzee the perfect platform for bigger challenges ahead in 2017.
It was also the first win by the Boks against France in five Tests at the venue.
It was always going to be a big ask after inspirational leader Warren Whiteley cried off before kickoff with a groin injury.
He’d been nursing the problem throughout the series and after it flared up on Thursday afternoon, it was decided to withdraw the Lions man from his home Test.
With fellow Lions star, scrumhalf Ross Cronjé, also missing because of concussion, the crucial 8-9-10 combination that worked so well in Pretoria and Durban was broken, and it showed.
The communication and fluency between the re-jigged back-row, with Jean-Luc du Preez at No 8 and Jaco Kriel coming in on the blindside flank, and the new-look halfback pairing, including Francois Hougaard at nine, just didn’t gel as well as coach Coetzee would have liked.
That said, Kriel enjoyed a barnstorming performance after sitting out the first two Tests.
But leading the way for the home team was on-day captain Eben Etzebeth, who became the Boks’ 59th captain, fellow second-row partner Franco Mostert and then, at the back, Jan Serfontein.
The midfielder was involved in plenty of the Boks’ attacking game and he was superb on defence, and even took a lineout ball, which led to Etzebeth’s try just after halftime.
The Boks though were way off the standard they set in the first two Tests. They made handling errors, missed their men in the lineout and fell off tackles they made in Pretoria and Durban. It was not a performance to remember.
France dominated for long periods and had the better of the home team in several areas, but even so, they still didn’t manage to break down the spirit or resolve of the Boks.
With all the ball they had – and they enjoyed tons of possession at times – they still didn’t manage to score a try, so hats off to Coetzee’s men for that.
After absorbing plenty of early pressure, the Boks got on the board first through an Elton Jantjies penalty, and then Jesse Kriel went over in the corner in the seventh minute after an excellent kick into space by the flyhalf and a chase and tackle by Serfontein.
That would be the only real highlight of a first half that can only be described as an arm wrestle.
Jantjies and Jules Plisson traded penalties before the teams changed sides with the Boks 16-9 up, but it quickly became 21-9 for the hosts following Etzebeth’s try from a five-metre lineout.
Plisson would soon knock over a fourth penalty to get his team within nine points, but when Malcolm Marx went over from close range in the 62nd minute, it was pretty much game over.
Replacement Rudy Paige sealed the deal late on with an excellently taken try after collecting a super pass from Bongi Mbonambi.
Job done this June. Now for the Rugby Championship and the real test for the Boks.
South Africa 35 – Tries: Jesse Kriel, Eben Etzebeth, Malcolm Marx, Rudy Paige. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3). Penalties: Jantjies (3).
France 12 – Penalties: Jules Plisson (4).