South Africa will face England in the Rugby World Cup final next Saturday, a repeat of the 2007 showpiece, following a battling 19-16 victory over Wales in Yokohama.
In stark contrast to an effervescent display from the Red Rose in beating New Zealand the previous day, this was a dogfight, from which Rassie Earasmus’ side barked loudest – Handre Pollard perfect from the tee with 14 points.
He kicked four penalties, as well as the conversion of Damian de Allende’s try with the Springboks winning the arm wrestle against Wales, as Warren Gatland failed to secure a perfect send-off after 12 years in charge by taking the Dragons into a maiden World Cup final.
They were always in the fight and were also flawless from the boot, with Josh Adams’ sixth try of the tournament making it 16-16 before Pollard settled it five minutes from time.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
It was certainly not one for the purists. While New Zealand and England the previous day was a showcase of skill and style, and everything that is beautiful about rugby, Wales v South Africa was the game’s ugly sister, a gruesome war of attrition.
But it was no less absorbing, as two giants went toe to toe in a scrappy slugfest, a tactical tussle in which neither gave an inch – the biggest lead at any stage the seven point advantage South Africa held for all of seven minutes following Pollard’s conversion of De Allende’s try.
Wales initially attempted some form of running rugby with a couple of penetrating first-half runs into opposition territory before seemingly deciding to play it safe and match the Springbok strategy.
The teams combined for a scarcely believable 81 kicks from hand – Wales 41, South Africa 40. For much of the contest fans must have felt they were watching an intense box-kicking battle between scrum-halves Gareth Davies and Faf de Klerk.
The warriors in green shirts completed 142 of 152 tackles, forced into nearly twice as many as Wales.
The brutality of the contest was a necessary evil and Erasmus and Co will care not one iota about the nature of victory.
It saw the Springboks book a place in their third World Cup final, and a first since 2007. In the process they denied the Dragons a maiden appearance.
Nor will they care that they go forward to meet England as clear underdogs. The Red Rose blossomed against the All Blacks and will be heavy favourites next weekend. But South Africa have never lost a World Cup final and it was England who were vanquished when they were victorious 12 years ago in Paris.
FIRST ONE TO BLINK
Each team’s kickers were perfect from the tee all night; every penalty was converted, so too were both conversions. And with both sides favouring the tactical aerial game, it was always going to come down to who could hold their nerve the longest.
In the end it was Wales who blinked first. After a huge period of Dragons dominance – going through the most phases of the match as they battered the Springbok line – where it felt like the tide was turning in their favour, South Africa’s scrambling defence ensured they survived.
When a moment presented itself, Rhys Patchell could not capture it as his drop goal never troubled the sticks and dropped only into the grateful grasp of Willie le Roux.
Then, in what had been a draining game, the Boks sprung into life. Minutes later the vastly experienced Francois Louw won a penalty in the contact area, providing the platform for man of the match Pollard to kick the decisive penalty.
Welsh hope were fading fast and you could see it, the blood visibly evaporating from the men in red’s faces when an audacious banana kick from De Klerk, in his own territory and two metres in the field of play, landed inches from the white touchline inside the heart of the Welsh 22.
Wales’ players, fans watching inside the stadium and those from much further away, knew in their heart of hearts that the heartache of never making a World Cup final would extend for at least another four years.
Opposite number Dan Biggar was similarly flawless from the tee, while Leigh Halfpenny landed arguably the pressure kick of the night when he converted Adams’ try – but Pollard was the protagonist on the pitch.
In a game that was gritty and grim, Montpellier’s new metronome was monstrous. He never looked like missing from the tee all night. With steely-eyed determination and sniper-like precision he picked off Wales whenever their errors presented him with the chance.
And while Biggar – and then Halfpenny – matched him dagger for dagger, he was able to hurt the opponents from other areas of his arsenal too.
With the game descending into anarchy he finally produced the first real bit of quality from his side, setting the Springboks on their way to the game’s first try when a powerful run close to the ruck pierced a hole in Welsh armour. A minute later, the camera cut to him when De Allende powered through powderpuff Biggar and Tomos Williams tackles to score.
Pollard burst into celebration, he had been the catalyst. That initial run was one of six – joint third among colleagues – while his 36 metres was bettered only by De Allende, Duane Vermeulen, Adams and George North.
Indestructible with the boot, incisive in attack and imperious in defence too, he did not miss one of his five tackles. Perfection in a far from perfect game.
Know more about Sport360 Application