Defending champions South Africa scored seven tries and moved a step closer to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals with a bruising 49-18 victory over impressive Tonga in their Pool B clash on Sunday.
Many of the 60,387 in the crowd were rooting for the Pacific Islanders, but while Tonga put on a brave showing, South Africa fed off their errors and had too much guile and experience.
The Boks scored tries through Cobus Reinach, Canan Moodie, Jessie Kriel, Deon Fourie, Willie le Roux, Marco van Staden and Kwagga Smith, but put in an error-strewn display, in part forced by the physicality of the Tongans.
The latter crossed for three scores through barrelling captain Ben Tameifuna, Fine Inisi and Patrick Pellegrini, the first time in 17 World Cup games the Boks have conceded three tries.
South Africa’s win took them top of the pool with 15 points and into a strong position to qualify for the last eight, but they are not confirmed yet and must wait for the outcome of the clash between Ireland and Scotland next Saturday.
The only way the Boks can fail to progress is if Scotland get five points and Ireland one, leaving all three teams on 15 points and the top two sides decided by points difference from their four matches.
“We knew they weren’t just going to lay down and give it to us. We made a couple of mistakes but we fought to the end,” South Africa captain Siya Kolisi said.
“They’re a great team, really hard to play against, they put everything on the line. We knew it was going to be a tough game. Hopefully, we’ve done enough to qualify for the next round.”
There was another positive for South Africa on the day they were led by Kolisi for the 50th time. Flyhalf Handre Pollard made a successful return in his first test in 13 months as he kicked all his conversions and lasted 50 minutes.
His replacement Manie Libbok also converted three from three to give the Boks a 100% kicking record, something that has been an issue in their game.
Tonga spent much of the first half in the South African half, but the Boks scored three tries and led 21-8 at the break.
Scrumhalf Reinach took a quick penalty and dived over as Tonga were caught napping, before centre Moodie and hooker Fourie crossed.
But Tonga hit back as Tameifuna, officially the heaviest player at the World Cup weighing in at 151 kilograms, barged over from close range.
Inisi raced in at the corner and Pellegrini profited from a poor piece of Bok defence in the second half.
South Africa chipped away at the scoreboard, however, and kept Tonga at arms-length with four more tries for a win that was comfortable on paper, but hard-fought on the pitch.
“It was a hard battle out there,” Tameifuna said. “This team, we don’t have a lot, but the boys turn up at this tough tournament and to put a performance like that shows where we are all heading.
“South Africa are the best in the world and it’s always tough to cross their line and we managed to do that a few times tonight.
“In these kind of games, you have to meet fire with fire and the boys did that,” he said.