To outside eyes, their crisis may have been averted, but within the South African camp the eyes remain cold with focus as they approach their final pool match against the USA. If they win, they will top the group; lose, and they may yet be out.
It is testament to the progress the less established nations have made at this World Cup, that we are careful to couch such a sentence with its full stock of conditionals. “The thing is,” says Bismarck du Plessis, who now seems restored as South Africa’s hooker, “the second-tier nations are so much more competitive. Georgia, Samoa and Japan – where it used to be that for the first 10 or 20 minutes they’d be competitive, now they stick it out for 80 minutes. That’s a good thing for rugby. It means we’re growing the game that I love.”
It is a great thing for rugby, but it does make life more harrowing for those who are used to a smooth progression to the quarterfinals. Bryan Habana is the most experienced player in South Africa’s team for Wednesday’s game at the Olympic Stadium, which will be his 114th Test, but he has never known anything like the pressure of the past couple of weeks.
“The highs and lows of the last two weeks have probably been the most vast and intense that I have ever experienced in my professional career,” he said. “When you go through what we went through first up with the loss to Japan and the criticism that followed; to then bounce back the following week against Samoa but lose your captain [Jean de Villiers]; and then to see the raw emotion of seniors and juniors alike when Jean had to leave was something really special. Hopefully these last two weeks have shown that we are not just here to lie down and die. We are here for a reason.”
Habana has 61 tries from his 113 Tests. Nine more from whatever time remains to him in a Springbok jersey would see him become the world’s most prolific try-scorer. And his tally of 12 World Cup tries is three shy of Jonah Lomu’s record. He may be 32, but he has no plans to retire just yet. “A lot of people say you know when the end is near. To be honest, I don’t think it’s quite there yet for me. I’m feeling good, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a championship side in Toulon over the last two seasons. That’s definitely kept the spirit going.”
The prospects of another shock, however, have been reduced somewhat by the selection of the USA, who change 12 players for this match. Most teams have had to contend with one tight turnaround. This match is South Africa’s, four days after they beat Scotland, and the USA must face Japan on Sunday, four days after this. Inevitably, they are holding their best players back for that one, representing as it does the likelier chance of the yearned-for win they feel their form deserves.
“We came into this with our goal as the quarterfinals,” says Louis Stanfill, the USA’s experienced lock. “We still have two games left to prove how far we’ve come. The last two games I think we’ve let ourselves down in proving that. The direction things are going, future World Cups hold huge amounts of promise for us. And America intends to fulfil that promise.”
Samu Manoa will captain the USA from number eight, in a back row that includes pacey sevens player Danny Barrett. Look out, too, for the two wings, Zack Test and Brett Thompson, who have contributed to the increasingly successful USA sevens team. The shortened game, scheduled to feature in next year’s Olympics, is already beginning to mobilise interest in rugby in the US.
Japan could tell them what a win against South Africa might do to enhance the sport’s profile further in their country, but that looks too outlandish a prospect even for this World Cup. The Springboks have that steely look in their eye again.
South Africa plays the USA at the Stadium Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Wednesday at 4.45pm.
South Africa: Le Roux; Habana, Kriel, De Allende, Mvovo; Pollard, Du Preez (captain); Mtawarira, Du Plessis, Malherbe, Etzebeth, De Jager, Louw, Burger, Vermeulen. Replacements: Brits, Nyakane, Oosthuizen, Du Toit, Alberts, Paige, Steyn, Serfontein.
USA: Scully; Thompson, Niua, A Suniula, Test; S Suniula, Kruger, Kilifi, Thiel, Baumann, Stanfill, Trouville, Barrett, Quill, Manoa (captain). Replacements: Taufetee, Fenoglio, Moeakiola, Lamositele, Dolan, McFarland, Petri, Wyles.