There have been times during his record-breaking tenure as Springbok coach when Jake White must have wished he were Bernard Laporte — but this is not one of them. At the same time that White and his charges are relaxing after a job well done, the coach of France is enduring sleepless nights and wondering if his team will still be in the World Cup on Saturday morning.
One of the few things that Laporte does not have to worry about is whether he’ll have a job if Ireland beat France in Paris on Friday night. The man who has led France in two World Cups assumes the role of his nation’s sports minister as soon as his business with Les Bleus is concluded.
It would not be the happiest of commencements, however, if it were to be as the coach who failed to get France beyond the pool stages for the first time in World Cup history.
The result of Friday’s encounter matters to the Springboks because it will go some way towards deciding which team they will play in the last four. Everyone is going out of their way to emphasise the hurdles that still confront the Boks, but the fact of the matter is that if they fail to top group A and beat (in all likelihood) Wales in the quarterfinals, then they weren’t championship material in the first place.
So assuming the Boks get to the last four, the draw states they will play Ireland, Scotland, Argentina or France, assuming the All Blacks beat Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday. A look at that quartet begs the question: Who would South Africa least like to face?
It’s an interesting conundrum, for the only one of those sides who have never beaten the Springboks is Argentina. Scotland won against Rudolf Straeuli’s side in Edinburgh in 2002, Ireland have won their past two encounters (both in Dublin), and France have won four, drawn one and lost one of the past six encounters.
Looking back on that heady opening game between France and Argentina, it was possible to see the hands of destiny choking the Pumas towards the end. Felipe Contepomi’s kicking was of the slide-rule variety until the chance to kill off the French challenge emerged in the last 10 minutes. At that point he missed two penalty kicks that he would normally knock over barefoot because the magnitude of the occasion got to him.
Imagine then, how Laporte and his charges will be feeling on Friday evening, in front of a full house that would like to know that France cannot freeze twice in the same stadium. Laporte has made four changes to the side that beat Namibia 87-10 and, crucially, has picked a proper fullback in Clement Poitreneau instead of making do with wing Cedric Heymans, as was the disastrous case against Argentina.
Bonus points, included in the World Cup for the first time, might yet save France. They could conceivably lose and yet qualify if Ireland were to beat Argentina in the penultimate match of the pool stages.
But the likelihood is that France will win, which would turn the game between Ireland and Argentina into a straight eliminator for the second quarterfinal berth.
For South Africa it is all mostly of academic interest, for their 36-0 defeat of England last Friday has sent shockwaves through the tournament. White was able on Wednesday to name his B team for Saturday’s game against Tonga in Lens. Only five players who did duty against England are in the starting line-up, although there is some insurance on the bench with seven of the A team all hoping for a quiet night.
Tonga’s 19-15 defeat of Samoa has given the contest a frisson that it probably does not deserve. Tonga are unbeaten and, of course, a win over South Africa would mean a guaranteed quarterfinal berth. There is more chance of the Eiffel Tower flying to the moon.
Only once in World Cup history have Tonga threatened to make headlines. That was the day in 1999 when their coach, the itinerant Kiwi Dave Waterstone, claimed in a post-match press conference that his team had been robbed. The score at Twickenham that day was England 101, Tonga 10.
As ever in minor contests, there are small matters for the record books. Bob Skinstad will captain the Springboks for the first time in a World Cup match. Considering that nine months ago the closest he could have expected to be to the game was a television studio near Heathrow, that is worth recording.
If Percy Montgomery comes off the bench at any stage he will win his 90th cap, thus supplanting Joost van der Westhuizen as the most-capped Springbok of all time. Those who recall the acrimony with which Monty left South African rugby in 2002 might think that is a more important achievement than the return of Skinstad.
In exactly 50 Tests up to the point of his Welsh exile, Monty had scored 261 points. In 39 subsequent internationals he has scored 614 points at an average of 15,75 a game. He has gone from Fancy Dan to Steady Eddie, which just goes to show that if you hang around long enough, something astonishing will surely happen. But the Eiffel Tower flying to the moon is a bridge too far.