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South Africa secures bonus-point win over Tonga as Pollard makes promising return

South Africa's Franco Mostert and Manie Libbo South Africa's Franco Mostert and Manie Libbo - The Canadian Press

MARSEILLE, France (AP) — South Africa secured a bonus-point 49-18 win over Tonga that put it on the verge of the quarterfinals on Sunday, and a successful return to action for flyhalf Handre Pollard added up to a solid day out for the defending champion at the Rugby World Cup.

The Springboks scored seven tries in their final pool game to give themselves the best chance of progressing ahead of an Ireland-Scotland showdown next weekend that will decide which two go through from Pool B.

Pollard, who was called up to the World Cup late as an injury replacement and called in for his first test in more than a year, converted the first four tries for a 100% night with the boot before he was replaced after 50 minutes.

Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber had seen enough by that point. South Africa's 2019 World Cup-winning playmaker also kicked well tactically and ran the backline efficiently having played just 30 minutes of club rugby in the last four months before Sunday.

“Brilliant to get 50 minutes into his legs, get exposed to international rugby," Nienaber said. "It’s a big stepping stone for him and we can build from there.”

Manie Libbok came on for Pollard and kicked three from three conversions to ensure that, apart from the crucial victory, South Africa also went some way to putting right the goal-kicking problems that were evident in a 13-8 defeat to Ireland in its last outing.

First-choice flyhalf Libbok came under pressure for his wayward kicking against the Irish and Pollard's promising return from injury will give the Springboks options if they progress to the knockouts.

That's not yet guaranteed, though.

The result took South Africa to the top of the pool but only by a point ahead of Ireland's pool decider against Scotland. An Ireland victory will send the Irish and the South Africans through. A Scotland victory could make it complicated and it might come down to points difference.

The smart money is still on top-ranked Ireland winning at Stade de France to finish as pool winner. That would likely mean No. 1 Ireland vs. New Zealand and No. 2 South Africa vs. host France in a couple of box office knockout games.

Scrumhalf Cobus Reinach set South Africa on its way in Marseille with a quick tap and try that caught the Tongan defense snoozing in the fifth minute. Center Canan Moodie benefited from a lucky bounce off Springboks prop Vincent Koch's shoulder for the second, all after Tonga had camped in South Africa's 22 for much of the first 20 minutes.

Deon Fourie marked his first test start as hooker with a third when the Springboks got their lineout maul working.

Tonga captain Ben Tameifuna bashed over two minutes from the break for 21-8 at halftime and the big prop's second try in as many games reminded the Boks that this wasn't a gimme.

“We knew they weren’t just going to lay down and give it to us," Siya Kolisi said after his 50th test as Springboks captain. "We made a couple of mistakes but we fought to the end. Really proud of the guys’ effort.”

The Springboks got their fourth try and a crucial bonus point through replacement back Jesse Kriel's drive to the line. Fullback Willie le Roux and replacements Marco van Staden and Kwagga Smith added the fifth, sixth and seventh tries, with Smith going under the crossbar after the final hooter.

Tonga had two second-half tries and never laid down. Wing Fine Inisi was put over by a pass from flyhalf William Havili after Tonga showed outstanding patience to work South Africa's defense until the gap appeared.

Replacement Patrick Pellegrini broke away for Tonga's third in the 73rd minute before Smith scored South Africa's seventh.

South Africa now waits on Ireland vs. Scotland hoping there's no twist in the pool tale. Tonga, officially eliminated, finishes against Romania for a good chance at taking a win from the World Cup.

“That is what rugby is all about. You want to play against the best," Tonga coach Toutai Kefu said. "That’s what makes the good players get out of bed, so it was a fantastic experience for everyone today.

"We are getting better and better. I really believe next week will be our best performance.”