Springboks got their title defence off to a winning start when they beat Scotland 18-3 in Marseille in the first of their four pool matches. They followed that up by cruising to a 76-0 victory over Romania in their second game, in which scrum-half Cobus Reinach scored a hat-trick inside 25 minutes – the second-quickest in World Cup history.
But their progress was brought to a halt on Saturday in a thrilling encounter against Ireland at the Stade de France that could yet turn out to be a dry run for the World Cup final at the end of next month.
The Boks’ lack of a reliable goal-kicker proved decisive on the night, with fly-half Manie Libbok and scrum-half Faf de Klerk both missing crucial kicks in the second half that would have reclaimed the lead.
With goal-kicking proving a point of contention in previous games, head coach Jacques Nienaber has chosen to call up World Cup-winning fly-half Handre Pollard to replace hooker Malcolm Marx, who has been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament with a long-term knee injury.
South Africa are now on course to finish as runners-up in Pool B, which some pundits have described as the ‘Group of Death’ as it also includes the Scots, Ireland, Romania and Tonga.
Provided Ireland continue their 16-match winning streak to defeat Scotland, Springboks are likely to face France in the quarter-finals in another Herculean clash.
When are South Africa’s Pool B matches?
Sunday, September 10
Sunday, September 17
Saturday, September 23
Sunday, October 1
South Africa v Tonga, Stade de Marseille – 8pm
When may South Africa’s quarter-final game be played?
Saturday, October 14
QF2: Winner Pool B v Runner-up Pool A, Stade de France – 8pm
. . . or . . .
Sunday, October 15
QF4: Winner Pool A v Runner-up Pool B, Stade de France – 8pm
When might South Africa play a semi-final?
Friday, October 20
Winner QF 1 v Winner QF 2, Stade de France – 8pm
. . . or . . .
Saturday, October 21
Winner QF 3 v Winner QF 4, Stade de France – 8pm
Handre Pollard is set to play against Tonga after joining South Africa’s squad as a replacement for injured hooker Malcolm Marx.
Pollard, the 29-year-old fly-half, was a key cog in the side that won the tournament four years ago. However, he missed out on selection for the initial 33-man squad due to a calf issue.
Speculation of a call-up has been rife for weeks and only heightened when Marx, the outstanding hooker, was ruled out of the World Cup after damaging knee ligaments in training in the week before the Romania game.
South Africa struggled off the kicking tee against Ireland, with fly-half Manie Libbok and scrum-half Faf de Klerk missing three penalties and a conversion between them.
Head coach Jacque Nienaber must now choose between the attacking dynamism of incumbent fly-half Manie Libbok, or the goal-kicking accuracy Pollard - who has played just one 30-minute cameo for club side Leicester since injuring his calf in May.
“Handre will play this weekend [against Tonga in Marseille next Sunday], but let’s see how he does the other stuff in the game,” South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus told reporters on Sunday.
“Does he get through it on the contact side of things? I am sure he’ll also take some time to find his rhythm with his kicking under pressure.
“The Tonga game will be a great test for him as a yardstick to see where he is before we go, if we go, into those quarter-finals, and who will be on the field.
“Manie is certainly playing brilliant fly-half rugby at the moment, but his goal-kicking is not matching that.”
Pollard’s inclusion could herald a return to the formula for their 2019 World Cup success, squeezing penalties out of teams with forward muscle and building scoreboard pressure through kicks at goal.
But Erasmus insists they will not continue to select him unless they are certain he can bring an all-round game.
“Handre is not Superman,” Erasmus said. “Four weeks ago he was totally not ready to play rugby. He has only played 40 minutes of rugby [since his injury].
“He can’t just come on the field and do goal-kicking. He must tackle, pass, do kick-offs, sidestep, do hand-offs and clean out at the rucks.”
When is the 2023 Rugby World Cup final?
Saturday, October 28
Stade de France – 8pm
What television channel is showing South Africa’s matches?
ITV have exclusive broadcast rights to show the Rugby World Cup in the UK. All South Africa’s games will be broadcast on ITV1
The radio commentary of every match will be available on the BBC, across Radio 5 Live, 5 Sports Extra and the BBC Sounds service. The BBC says there will be a “bespoke output” in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In South Africa, the tournament is being broadcast on SuperSport.
Who is in South Africa’s Rugby World Cup squad?
Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Jean Kleyn, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese, Deon Fourie, Franco Mostert.
Faf de Klerk, Jaden Hendrikse, Cobus Reinach, Grant Williams, Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Damian de Allende, Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie.
Who are favourites to win the World Cup?
South Africa: 16/5
New Zealand: 9/2