NEWS
09/30/2011 07:31 EDT | Updated 11/30/2011 05:12 EST

Defending champion South Africa survives Samoan scare to advance unbeaten to RWC quarterfinals

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - If the Samoans had to go at the Rugby World Cup, they were determined to take some Springboks out with them.

Defending champion South Africa led 13-0 and was showing glimpses of championship-winning form Friday night until a counterassault from Samoa, which launched attack after brutal attack before succumbing 13-5.

The South Africans survived the onslaught to advance unbeaten to the quarterfinals, but not completely unscathed.

Bryan Habana was injured after scoring his first-half try and brilliant backline utility Frans Steyn will more than likely withdraw from the World Cup after damaging his shoulder. Springboks coach Peter de Villiers confirmed Saturday morning that Steyn, who has incredibly long range with his place kicking, is 95 per cent sure of being sidelined for the rest of the tournament.

It was the kind of bruising, energy-absorbing game that would have delighted South Africa's potential opponents in the knockout rounds.

Among them could be Tri-Nations champion Australia in the quarterfinals and top-ranked New Zealand in the semis.

The Australians, off-course since an upset loss to Ireland, finish off Pool C with an injury-plagued team featuring 35-year-old backrower Radike Samo starting on the wing against Russia at Nelson on Saturday.

Two-time finalist France faces a nervy match at Wellington against Tonga, another heavy-hitting Polynesian team that has a remote chance of progressing to the quarterfinals for the first time and will leave its share of bruises on the Frenchmen.

Saturday will conclude with what shapes as a classic encounter between unbeaten England and Scotland, the oldest rivals in international rugby, at sold-out, 60,000-seat Eden Park. The Scots need to beat England by at least eight points — something they haven't achieved in 25 years — or they'll miss the quarterfinals for the first time at a World Cup. England can still be eliminated if it doesn't win or pick up a bonus point.

The group stage finishes with four matches Sunday: New Zealand vs. Canada, Italy vs. Ireland, Wales vs. Fiji and Argentina vs. Georgia.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw withdrew from the match against Canada with the recurrence of a right foot injury on Saturday, but expects to be fit for the quarterfinals. Daniel Carter will take over as captain for the first time in a test for New Zealand.

England team manager Martin Johnson spent part of Friday fending off questions about the ball tampering fiasco which resulted in two of his coaches being banned from the sidelines for Scotland match.

One of them, David Alred, is the goalkicking coach who works with flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson, who has been off target in the tournament.

England imposed the ban on both coaches for switching the match ball before Wilkinson attempted conversions in the big win over Romania last week. That is against the rules in rugby. But the scandal hasn't bothered the players.

"They've just got on with getting ready for the match," Johnson said. The banned coaches "did what they did in the heat and confusion of a test match.

"They should have asked the referee, we should have asked the referee. We didn't. They asked us to stop. We did."

Johnson thought the sanctions were enough.

"I don't suspend guys lightly. They're going to miss the game, which is a big blow for them," he said. "We regret what we did and it was wrong. We've taken the action that we've taken and we get on with it.

"In the pressure of a World Cup these things can happen."

Samoa fullback Paul Williams had one of those moments with 10 minutes to go Friday night, when he responded to some baiting from Heinrich Brussow with a slap to the Springboks flanker's face in clear view of the match officials and just about everyone in the ground-record crowd of 29,734 at North Harbour Stadium. It earned him the first red card of the tournament and a judiciary hearing in Auckland on Saturday afternoon.

South Africa scored all of its points in the first 27 minutes, with a converted try to Habana diving into the left corner and penalties from Morne Steyn and Frans Steyn.

The Samoans launched an impressive comeback, which only netted a try to big No. 8 George Stowers in the 52nd minute but stunned the Springboks and exposed gaping holes in the defence out wide.

"You'll never find a team more physical in rugby. It was a great preparation going forward for us," de Villiers said of his battered and bruised Springbok squad. "Just glad to come through it."

The Samoans had a setback earlier Friday when it was revealed on Twitter that giant winger Alesana Tuilagi had been fined $10,000 by tournament organizers for wearing a mouthguard which contravened rules for ambush marketing.

The seemingly heavy sanction, when England was let off lightly for a clearer breach of the fundamental rules of the game, drew plenty of sympathy from the New Zealand public. A local TV news presenter started a fundraising campaign which raised enough money from public donations to pay the fine for Samoa.