South Africa took a big step towards qualifying for the quarter-finals of the 2015 Rugby World Cup with a convincing 34-16 victory over Scotland in their must-win clash at St James' Park. Having lost to Japan in their opening fixture, they could not afford any further slips ups and produced an impressive display with three tries from Schalk Burger, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana leaving the Springboks one-point clear at the top of Pool B.
In a fast and brutally physical contest in front of a 50,900-strong Newcastle crowd, the South Africans drew first blood in somewhat controversial fashion. After the ball had been bulldozed over the line in a crowd of bodies, referee Nigel Owens enlisted the help of the Television Match Official (TMO) who determined that Burger had got the final touch on the ball despite the presence of several Scottish hands.
The lead was extended as that potent Springbok driving maul culminated with a successful penalty from Handre Pollard. At 13-3, Jannie du Plessis was shown a yellow card for failing to use his arms in a tackle but it was South Africa who pushed further ahead as another successful maul gained a significant number of yards. Scrum-half Fourie du Preez, who was named as captain for the day with Jean de Villiers having returned home and retired from international rugby due to a fractured jaw and Victor Matfield also out injured, then took the ball away quickly and teed up Pietersen who bundled over.
Scotland's solitary try came on 49 minutes, when Duncan Weir showed great anticipation to pick off Pollard's errant pass and run almost the entire length of the field. He was eventually wrapped up by Pietersen, but managed to find Tim Visser and his subsequent offload allowed Tommy Seymour to run the ball home. Pollard recovered from that error to ease the pressure on his team with a timely drop goal and Greg Laidlaw was then forced to miss 10 minutes as he hauled down Habana to prevent him collecting his own kick. The veteran wing was not to be denied, however, scoring his 61st try in 113 test appearances with seven minutes remaining.
That result was not ideal for Japan's hopes of defying the odds to reach the last eight, despite the Brave Blossoms picking up their second win in three matches against Samoa at Stadium mk in the day's early kick-off.
Samoa were handed an early let-off as Ayumu Goromaru was denied the opening try of the afternoon by the TMO due to a slight forward pass. Thankfully for the full-back, referee Craig Joubert was playing advantage at the time and a successful kick meant Japan did not come away from the attack empty handed.
Although he missed a second shortly afterward, Eddie Jones' side were soon aided by their opposition's chronic lack of discipline as number eight Faifili Levave was yellow carded for a dangerous late hit and Sakaria Taulafo soon joined him in the sin bin after tackling his man in the air. With the lackluster Samoans forced to defend with just 13 men, Japan applied the pressure and got their reward when captain Michael Leitch opted for a scrum just metres from the posts. A big push ensued and forced the set-piece to collapse before Joubert rightly awarded the penalty try.
There is certainly an argument to suggest that a two-man advantage should have yielded more points. However, even back to a full compliment of players Samoa could not hold firm and another Goromaru penalty was followed by a second try on the stroke of half-time as Akihito Yamada went over in the corner. The subsequent conversion resulted in a deserved 20-0 lead at the break.
Samoa began the second 40 in slightly better form, but two more kicks stretched Japan's lead further after Yamada was stretchered off with what looked a nasty injury. The Pacific Islanders scored their only try after 63 minutes, turning defence into attack in a matter of seconds with a turnover close to their own line. They broke forward in numbers, with the ball sweeping quickly from right to left before Sharks centre Paul Perez touched down. That was as good as things got for Stephen Betham and co, however, with the conversion missed and Filo Paulo becoming the third player cautioned for taking out the scrum-half at a ruck.
Japan face the United States in Gloucester next Sunday, while Samoa's underwhelming campaign will finish against Scotland in Newcastle. South Africa have a shorter turnaround and will meet the Americans on Wednesday 7 October.