YOKOHAMA — In a semifinal match fought mainly in the skies, it was the 81st and last kick of the game that finally broke Welsh hearts and booked South Africa’s progression to the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
The physical toll of the 80 minutes was incomprehensible but this was as much about mental strength and a battle of concentration. Amid the relentless flurry of kicks, the semifinal was played out like chess; each team waited for the other to blink, where pressure built like the grip of a boa constrictor, until Handre Pollard’s unwavering penalty with four minutes to play saw the Springboks edge out Wales 19-16.
The Springboks’ roller-coaster ride — from a record-breaking losing run in 2016, to then sacking their coach mid-World Cup cycle, to this renaissance under Rassie Erasmus — continues as they look to win their third World Cup title against England on Saturday, on this very patch of grass they peppered with kicks raining from the sky on a cool night in Yokohama.
It has been some return for Erasmus in what was your archetypal World Cup knockout match of yesteryear: an arm-wrestle where width was a blessing and the pitch was chewed up and spat out by the forwards’ boots.
England now know what awaits them on Saturday. Japan knew they were in for a physical examination from the Springboks like the inevitability of a sunset, and they simply didn’t have the ammunition to counter the behemoths in last week’s quarterfinals. England know the Boks will throw everything at them through their power runners like Damian de Allende and then look for anything off the back through their light-footed backs. Not that they saw much of the ball on Sunday — De Klerk and Pollard constantly kicked to Wales’ 22, while the fullbacks spent the entirety of the game staring into the Yokohama sky waiting for the ball to descend rather than looking at the mass of bodies facing them.
What underlined this Boks victory was complete trust in their game plan, and even when Wales got a foothold back in the game through Josh Adams’ second-half try, levelling the scores at 16-16, the Boks found another gear. Erasmus emptied the bench — again opting for a six-two split between forwards and backs — and managed to wrestle the game back into their control. Pollard was magnificent, faultless with the boot, and their try came thanks to the evasive running of their fly-half and then the brute strength of de Allende.
Do not underestimate for one minute the work Erasmus has done to turn this team’s fortunes around. Back in 2017, I remember being sat in the news conference room at the Principality Stadium after Wales had beaten the Boks 24-22 in what proved to be Allister Coetzee’s final match in charge before he was sacked a couple of months later. Eben Etzebeth was captain that day but had been injured, so it was Siya Kolisi who faced the press. He spoke of his faith in Coetzee, and launched an impassioned defence after they had lost their 12th Test in 22 matches under him. But despite his plea for patience and positivity, it felt like he was facing a Sisyphean task; the mood was like a funeral.
But fast-forward seven months, Coetzee had gone, Erasmus was running the show and the Boks had beaten England on home turf. Erasmus brought a fresh unity to the team with an open-facing approach of unwavering honesty and trust and had helped mend divides within the camp. He turned to Kolisi as his captain; again, he inspired the Boks here in Yokohama in his own quiet, focused manner.
The Boks aren’t unapologetic about their methods in winning matches: it’s built around playing to their strengths and eventually forcing the opposition into submission. On Sunday, Wales matched them in so many areas, but were finally overpowered.
Five kicks in the final five minutes won this World Cup semifinal for South Africa. With the game locked at 16-16, South Africa landed a quintet of hammer blows. First, Pollard slotted the match-winning penalty. Then came two brilliantly weighted box kicks from de Klerk, and he completed his masterpiece trilogy with a neat chip down the Welsh touchline to pin them back in their 22. The grip tightened and Pollard’s last act was to tap and hammer a kick to touch, bringing the curtain down on Wales’ valiant effort.
Again Warren Gatland’s side suffered the cruel fate of injuries, with Tomos Francis and George North both forced off in the first half to add to a growing injury toll including Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Anscombe, Liam Williams and Josh Navidi. There was no shame in this defeat, it was not for lack of trying, and it does not taint Gatland’s remarkable legacy with Wales (four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams, two World Cup semifinals), but the competitors in this team will be left unfulfilled. Friday’s bronze medal match against New Zealand will be more an ellipsis rather than a full stop on their achievements.
“I thought South Africa played well: physical, scrummed well, drove pretty well, aimed for collisions, they needed to take us up front,” Gatland said. “There wasn’t a lot of flowing rugby played but I’m very proud of the boys and never giving up and staying in there. And for a bit of luck, bounce of the ball, things might’ve been different.”
Gatland wanted his Wales career to finish like it began in 2007 with a match against England, but instead it’ll be the wounded All Blacks in Tokyo, the last Tier 1 team he still has to beat with Wales.
For Erasmus and his Springboks, they now get a shot at joining the 1995 and 2007 classes in rugby immortality as World Cup winners.
“Now we’re in the final — only then will we really see if we’ve turned the corner as much as we wanted to,” Erasmus said. But England know they will be in for plenty of kicks and a physical examination on Saturday.