South Africa were tested for the first time in the tournament but in the end had the physical edge to defeat Samoa to claim top spot in Pool B and a place in Wednesday’s semi-finals.
But Samoa came desperately close to causing an upset with a massive performance that rocked the Baby Boks, their physical game causing huge problems for the South Africans.
In a shock opening to the match, Samoa took the lead with a penalty goal from fly half Ioane Sefo before further unsettling their more fancied opponents with a fine try from fingertip passing and strong finishing from left wing David Masoe.
South Africa hit back with a sustained series of attacks that forced Samoa to take desperate defensive measures – too desperate, in fact, for the liking of Fijian referee James Bolabiu, who showed the yellow card to skipper Afa Aiono.
From the resultant penalty, South Africa fly half Francois Brummer claimed the three points on offer, but almost immediately, Samoa stormed back and Sefo landed his second penalty goal for an 11-3 lead.
The margin was quickly reduced with a try from Thiliphaut Marole, South Africa’s big blindside flanker taking a short pass before crashing over for an unconverted score.
Samoa had a chance to increase their lead with a drop-goal attempt by full back Alatasi Tupou, only for the ball to drift wide of the far upright. Then on the stroke of half-time, Brummer kicked his second penalty goal to leave the teams level at 11-11 going into the interval.
In the second half, South Africa attempted to turn their huge share of possession into points but a missed penalty kick at goal and then a disallowed try left the Baby Boks frustrated.
But in a dramatic finish after Samoa centre Sanele Vavae Tuilagi had been sent to the sin-bin for indiscipline, South Africa counterpart Stefan Watermeyer used turnover ball to run in a late try that proved to be the winning score.
South Africa coach Eric Sauls: “It was a relief to win in such a close game. Maybe the other two matches were a bit easy for the boys. This was a timely wake-up call. The guys panicked a bit when they saw the physicality of the Samoans. What pulled us through was our defence.”
South Africa captain Gerrit Jan van Velze: “We struggled a bit because they really came at us. They denied us quick ruck ball and so we didn’t play the way we had against USA and Scotland. I think this game maybe brought the guys back to earth.”
Samoa coach Sogi Meleisea: “We might have won the game by taking a better option when we were pressing their line in the last minute. We had a chance of beating South Africa and missed it. Mistakes gave them penalties.”
Samoa captain Afa Aiono: “I’m proud of the boys. We never gave up. The main problem was their scrummaging and their weight. But I’m pleased that the boys never gave up. We now need to lift our game a level for the next two games.”