South Africa and England will stage a repeat of 2007 when they meet in the final of Rugby World Cup 2019 in Yokohama next weekend.
Forget about aesthetics and fun, this semi-final was white-knuckle tension from the outset as the unapologetic Springboks played dour, percentage rugby.
Flyhalf Handré Pollard scored 14 points from four penalties and a conversion with a perfect five-from-five strike rate. Centre Damian de Allende scored a try midway through the second half.
In late 2017, if someone had said the Boks would be in a RWC final, contesting for the Webb Ellis Cup, they would have been quietly led away to a padded room and sedated.
From the flotsam and jetsam of Albany and Dublin and Florence and Salta, where the Boks stumbled from one embarrassment to the next, to being 80 minutes away from being the world champions, is a metaphor for South Africa’s ongoing challenges.
South Africa is always on the brink of disaster, always staring into a pit of despair. Yet somehow it prevails, and on the rugby field the Springboks are no different.
This team are not as easy on the eye as the All Blacks or as well-heeled and pampered as England, but they have mongrel. They have more than that though. They have a never-say-die attitude and players with the willingness to reach into the deepest parts of their beings to find a way to win.
Coach Rassie Erasmus has found a winning recipe in less than two years because he’s kept it simple, based the strategy on field position, strong defence and set-piece strength.
Faf de Klerk is the embodiment of the Springboks’ ability to adapt and learn. Two years ago he was a flying menace, playing off-the-cuff rugby that resulted in more farce than success.
But he has adapted his game and stuck to the rigid script of winning the territorial battle with the boot before showing off any flair. If he could change, so could the entire operation. And it has.
On Sunday, the players stuck to the plan, with captain Siya Kolisi making all the right calls and keeping the players on script. The starting 15 wore Wales down and the bench finished the job. Their energy was the difference in the final quarter.
Of course England, after their brilliance in dismantling the All Blacks 19-7 in Saturday’s first semi-final, will start as favourites next week, which is neither here nor there. You can’t win it if you’re not in it, and South Africa are still alive.
The Boks were better than Wales for the most part. But they kept them in the game with errors that made the contest harder and tenser than it should have been.
Fullback Willie le Roux gifted Wales two soft first-half penalties, for not releasing the ball and for straying offsides at a ruck, which led to six points off the boot of Dan Biggar.
Flank Pieter-Steph du Toit inexplicably played the ball with his hands in a ruck for another penalty when the Boks were deep inside Wales’ 22. That allowed the Welsh to clear their lines and release pressure at a time when they were creaking. Wales’ third points-producing penalty came when the Boks sacked a maul.
But the Boks kept grinding, finding ways to force penalties, which Pollard slotted with calm assurance.
There was little in it. The Boks shaded the scrums, and Wales were largely successful in their attempts to starve the Boks of lineouts on their own throw by not kicking for touch. The Boks only had six lineouts on their own ball the entire game.
Wales had 15 lineouts and several put-ins appeared skew, but French referee Jerome Garces, who otherwise had a quiet game, didn’t see it that way.
Wales had the better of the breakdowns too, although there were several times when the likes of Duane Vermeulen seemed to get over the ball, only to lose the battle as Wales hung on for a vital second or two longer.
Generally though, the battle was confined to an aerial contest for territory. Neither side was watertight under the high ball and Erasmus must be hoping that Cheslin Kolbe’s injury clears for next week’s final. The Boks missed his buzzing presence and ability to get off the ground to contest the high ball.
Sbu Nkosi did well and had a few strong runs, but it was Pollard who produced the most incisive moment of the game.
In the lead-up to De Allende’s try, the Bok pivot attacked the gainline, found a hole and finally breached Wales’ defence. Two phases later De Allende brushed Biggar aside to score with a quarter of the game remaining.
The build-up to that try came from South Africa’s most ambitious phase of the game. For a moment they decided to keep the ball in hand and take it through the phases.
Replacement lock RG Snyman and hooker Malcolm Marx were prominent as they made metres in contact. It was a hopeful sign that when the Boks decide to play, they can create. It’s something to cling on to for the final.
Soon after, another soft penalty gave Wales field position. The Bok repelled 14 phases of Welsh attacks, following a 5m lineout, but eventually conceded a penalty.
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, playing his 142nd Test, bravely called for a scrum. It was a rock-solid set piece by Wales and they worked the ball left where centre Jonathan Davies created space for wing Josh Adams to score his sixth try of the tournament. Leigh Halfpenny landed the conversion to level the score at 16-16 and ratchet up the tension to terrifying levels.
Amid the heavy atmosphere and the potential for a lifetime of “what-ifs”, Pollard and the rest of the Boks shrugged. And immediately reverted to their default setting of searching for territory.
Francois Louw won South Africa’s only breakdown penalty of the day, five minutes from the end. Pollard punted the ball deep into Wales’ territory. Marx found Snyman at the lineout and Wales sacked the maul. Penalty South Africa.
Pollard, looking the picture of calm, stepped up and laced the ball through the uprights from near the touchline to keep the dream of a third world title alive.
It was an ice-cool piece of play from the Bok general, who was a commanding presence in a claustrophobic game of fine margins. Next week, he and the team will have to do it all over again. DM
South Africa –Try: Damian de Allende. Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (4).
Wales –Try: Josh Adams. Conversion: Leigh Halfpenny. Penalties: Dan Biggar (3).