Tournament hosts France bowed out of the World Cup in agonising fashion after losing by a point to defending champions South Africa as the Stade de France hosted another epic quarter-final that hung in the balance until the very last moment.
Just 24 hours after New Zealand edged out Ireland in a six-try thriller in northern Paris, the other two members of the world’s top four served up a last-eight showdown that somehow eclipsed it for drama and scintillating rugby.
On a frenzied night when France’s talismanic captain Antoine Dupont made his much-hyped return following a broken cheekbone – sporting a scrum-cap – Les Bleus were defeated 29-28 as the defiant Boks held on to set up a semi-final showdown with England at the same venue next Saturday.
Having experienced the hostility of the French crowd when they lost narrowly in Marseille last November, South Africa had been training with background noise blaring through speakers in the lead-up to the quarter-final.
The Boks’ efforts to combat the impact of the partisan home support looked futile in the early moments, however, as the French started like a train and threatened to blow their opponents away.
Les Bleus – eyeing a 19th consecutive home win – signalled their intent from the outset and Louis Bielle-Biarrey was desperately close to scoring in the second minute but he was just unable to get a firm enough hand on the ball to force it down after getting himself over the line on the left.
The French kept their foot to the floor, though, and they had their supporters in raptures in the fourth minute as prop Cyril Baille dotted over for an easy finish on the right following a ferocious maul towards the line after a quickly-taken lineout. Thomas Ramos added the extras.
South Africa, summoning the resolve of champions, managed to stem the blue tide and get themselves a foothold in the game. They levelled things up out of nothing as a high ball over the top bounced kindly for Kurt-Lee Arendse, who burst over the line, with Manie Libbok adding the conversion.
Ramos attempted to edge the French back in front with a penalty attempt from just shy of the halfway line but it lacked the required distance.
Remarkably, it was the Boks who got themselves ahead in the 18th minute when Damian de Allende forced his way over at the second attempt. Libbok – whose inconsistent kicking has become a talking point in this tournament – was off target with the conversion.
The frenzied start continued when French hooker Peato Mauvaka forced his way over on the right for the fourth try of the evening in the 22nd minute. Adding to the drama, Ramos’ conversion attempt was brilliantly charged down by Cheslin Kolbe.
That would ultimately prove crucial and the jet-heeled Kolbe had another big impact at the other end of the pitch five minutes later as he outpaced two French chasers to reach a clever kick through from Jesse Kriel and bolt over on the left. This time Libbok was on point with his conversion.
The French levelled things up again just after the half-hour when prop Baille pushed over for his second score, with Ramos converting.
The Boks suffered a blow at the end of the first half when lock Eben Etzebeth was yellow-carded for a head-on-head tackle on Uini Atonio. Ramos kicked the resulting penalty to ensure the French went in with a 22-19 lead at the end of one of the most exhilarating 40 minutes in Rugby World Cup history.
South Africa changed their half-back pairing early in the second half as they sent on Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk for Libbok and Cobus Reinach, shortly before Etzebeth returned with no further damage done on the scoreboard in his absence.
With the pace of the game having subsided, Ramos stretched the French lead to six points with another penalty in the 54th minute.
However, the topsy-turvy nature of this titanic encounter continued and – just as France looked to have some control – the Boks got themselves a point ahead in the 67th minute when Etzebeth forced over for the seventh try of the night, converted by Pollard. And two minutes later, Pollard put his team four points to the good with a penalty.
Ramos reduced the deficit to a point with a kick of his own in the 72nd minute, setting up a grandstand finale, but the French were unable to muster one final score as their dreams of a first World Cup on home soil died.