There will be no Northern Hemisphere final. Twenty four hours after Yokohama served up one of the all-time great knockout matches, South Africa and Wales produced something more commonly seen in a gruelling kick-sodden slow-burner. In the end, it would come down to who could keep their nerve, and after 80 pain-staking minutes, it was Handre Pollard and the Springboks who emerged triumphant.
South Africa will return here next Saturday to face England in a repeat of the 2007 World Cup final, while for Wales the journey is agonisingly not over yet. They will face a New Zealand team that will be determined to make up for the failings of their own semi-final defeat, and a long night could be in store for Warren Gatland’s farewell in Friday’s third-place play-off.
South Africa have the boot of Pollard to thank for their third World Cup final appearance, with the fly-half kicking 14 of their points on top of Damian de Allende’s well-taken try. Wales were keeping up with the African side thanks to Josh Adams’s sixth try of the campaign – putting himself out in front in the try-scoring charts – while Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny added 11 points combined from the tee, but Pollard’s final penalty four minutes from time proved the final nail in Wales’s World Cup coffin.
As with 2011, Wales fell agonisingly short of a first World Cup final appearance, and it is scarcely believable that in two semi-final appearances in eight years they have lost by a combined four points. But the drama of this finish doesn’t quite tell the full story of the game.
A kick for every minute. That’s what the two teams managed to cough up in arguably the most dire 40 minutes of the entire World Cup. At one stage approaching the half-hour mark, South Africa had managed to kick the ball more times than they had passed it – a rather staggering stat when the aim of the game is considered.
There is a big reason why the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks team are not fondly remembered, and it’s entirely to do with their strategy: kick and chase, kick and chase, kick and chase. Sure, the penalties will come through their resilient defence and with that the points needed to win games, but at what cost? A large one to those inside the International Stadium Yokohama, who paid good money for these tickets yet will have left feeling decidedly short-changed.
If this was 2007 South Africa reincarnated, it was also 2015 Wales. Warren Gatland was already unable to call on Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Anscombe, Cory Hill and Josh Navidi heading into the biggest week of their campaign, before world class full-back Liam Williams joined that list in departing the World Cup with an ankle injury. By the time the game reached the halfway point, Wales found themselves depleted of two more key men, with prop Tomas Francis forced off after a high-impact collision with Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen. George North followed soon after when his right knee gave out on him chasing a kick.
The result was a decidedly flat atmosphere inside the stadium that 24 hours prior was hosting one of the all-time great semi-finals. The result was a kicking contest with both sides looking to capitalise on mistakes from the opposition. Pollard kicked the Springboks ahead first in the 15th minute when Justin Tipuric failed to roll away after stopping S’bu Nkosi, only for Biggar to respond two minutes later with his first successful effort after Willie le Roux was caught offside.
Pollard restored the lead in the 20th minute when the Welsh scrum was forced to wheel under pressure, and the South African fly-half added his third effort when Ken Owens entered a driving maul from the side. But Wales crucially replied before the half was over – and even after losing both Francis and North – with Biggar punishing Duane Vermeulen’s hit on Aaron Wainwright off the ball.
As half-time arrived, fans were desperate for something better in the second half. Thankfully it came.
Biggar quickly levelled the scores again from a lineout penalty after De Klerk comically attempted to take on the towering lock Jake Ball, all with a grin on his face, before the game finally came to life. The Springboks, remembering that there are six other players outside of De Klerk, started to put the ball through the hands that brought a decisive scything line through the Wales defence from Pollard. De Klerk recycled quickly to come left to De Allende, and slack defending from Biggar, Tomos Williams and Owen Watkin allowed the centre to charge his way over from 10 metres out. He shouldn’t have got near to the line.
Wales needed a swift response, and they got one. The forwards bludgeoned the South African line after Rhys Patchell sent a penalty to touch on the five metre line from distance, and when they finally drew a penalty from a defiant Springbok defence, Alun Wyn Jones made the big call to go for a scrum. Needing seven points, No 8 Ross Moriarty fed Williams with De Klerk already committed, and both Lukhanyo Am and Nkosi bit in to free up Jonathan Davies to send Adams in at the corner. Halfpenny’s excellent conversion from the touchline levelled the scores once more.
But the late twist came at the other end of the pitch, where young replacement prop Rhys Carre was penalised for collapsing a maul after South Africa had kicked to touch. Pollard stepped up, held his nerve, and kicked South Africa to yet another final. But on this evidence there will need to be a significant improvement to match what England produced the day before.
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