They were under the cosh for much of the first half and had to withstand 10 phases after the 80 minutes were up to set up a semi-final against England – conquerors of Fiji earlier on Sunday – at the same venue in six days’ time.
They had to overcome overwhelming odds everywhere – except between the four white lines – to do it. France’s victory over New Zealand in pool play, the weight of expectation of the home nation and the seething, roaring majority in the 79 486 crowd all contributed to the home team’s status as favourites.
But what had been billed as an unstoppable force – as history waiting to be gloriously realized – found that it could indeed be stopped by 23-green shirted giants in heart and spirit (if not all them necessarily in stature).
France shot out of the blocks with a try in the fourth minute by unmarked Cyril Baille in the right-hand corner after they cleverly added two backs to their lineout and drove a maul a good 15m to within a couple of feet of the Bok line.
Scrambling defence on the opposite flank prevented a second only a minute later as the Boks were pinned back in the opening minutes by a rampant France and it was against the run of play when Kurt-Lee Arendse scampered away for the equalising try after a turnover by Duane Vermeulen had led to a contested cross field kick that fell to the wing.
Manie Libbok converted from close to the touchline and then a second hanging kick caused more chaos in the French defence for Damian de Allende to race 40m before being pulled down just short of the line. However, he had regained his feet a phase or two later to bust over from a great line off a well-timed Cobus Reinach pass.
This time Libbok’s conversion was wide but then French kicking ace Thomas Ramos had his conversion attempt almost miraculously charged down by Cheslin Kolbe after hooker Peato Mauvaka had gone over in that same right corner after a quick tap by Antoine Dupont.
As the breathless half continued Kolbe scored a third Bok try from Jesse Kriel’s grubber kick from halfway after aggressive defence had broken up a France attack on halfway.
Libbok converted from the left-hand side of the poles but the scoring was not done and France edged into the lead at the break thanks to an equalizing try from close in by Baille – his second – converted by Ramos who added a penalty goal on the stroke of halftime from the angle and 50m out after Eben Etzebeth had been yellow carded for a clash of heads with Uini Atonio.
Ramos edged France six points ahead in the 52nd minute by which time the Bok bench had been all but emptied (only Vincent Koch remained unused) as the dice were rolled and the Bok intensity went up a level in the chase for an equalizing score.
The Boks did better than that. The bench began to swing territory in the South Africa’s favour and great work by Kwagga Smith to force a penalty for not releasing close to the French line, Etzebeth ploughed through two tacklers for Handre Pollard to kick a conversion from close in.
Pollard added a penalty goal from inside his own half with 11 minutes to go to stretch the lead to four points only for Ramos to shave it back to a single point with his fifth successful kick at goal three minutes later.
From their it was hearts in mouths and nip-and-tuck but the Boks were the ones on the road to history.
Springboks 29 (19) – Tries: Kurt-Lee Arendse, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, Eben Etzebeth. Conversions: Manie Libbok (2), Handre Pollard. Penalty goal: Pollard.
France 28 (22) – Tries: Cyril Baille (2), Peato Mauvaka. Conversions: Thomas Ramos (2). Penalty goals: Ramos (3).