In a semifinal that will not be fondly remembered, South Africa eked out a 19-16 victory over Wales to set up a title match against England in Yokohama. It's a rematch of the 2007 final won by the Springboks in Paris for their second and most recent world title.
Just like 12 years ago, they'll be relying on their physicality, set-piece strength and structured game to get them through. It was just enough against Wales. A day after a supreme display by England in an upset win over the All Blacks, this was a grafting contest that was ultimately settled by a 76th-minute penalty by South Africa flyhalf Handre Pollard. He didn't miss any of his five kicks at goal — four penalties and a conversion after Damian de Allende's 57th-minute try.
"It probably wasn't the best spectacle to watch," South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus said, "but the boys stuck to their guns and adapted to it." The Welsh, seeking to reach a first final, recovered from a sloppy, mistake-riddled start that somehow only left them 9-6 down at halftime and took the game to the Boks in the second half, their bench giving them energy and better field position. They drew level at 9-9, and then again at 16-16 after winger Josh Adams' converted try in the left corner.
But a turnover in center-field by Springbok replacement Francois Louw and one last error — by prop Rhys Carre, coming in at the side of one of South Africa's hard-to-stop rolling mauls — proved Wales' undoing.
"It was one of those weird games I guess, probably the complete opposite of last night's game which had so much running rugby," Wales flanker Justin Tipuric said. "Today was so close that any bounce of the ball could have gone either way. It was just a bit gutting when we didn't come out with a win."
There'll be no first all-northern hemisphere final and no perfect send-off for coach Warren Gatland, who is departing after 12 successful years in charge. Just a bronze-medal playoff against his native New Zealand.
"Once we were in the arm wrestle, it was about attrition and I'm proud of the boys for not giving up and staying in there," Gatland said. "A bounce of the ball and it might have been different." Instead, it's the Springboks, led by their first black captain, Siya Kolisi, heading to the championship decider for a third time. They have gone on to win it on both occasions, the first time in 1995 and famously under the gaze of Nelson Mandela, the president at the time.
Cyril Ramaphosa is South Africa's current president and he phoned Kolisi on the eve of the semifinals, wishing the team good luck. It is a triumph for Erasmus, who was hired in February 2018 with South African rugby on its knees following a chastening two years under Allister Coetzee. Twenty months later, the team is playing trademark, hard Bok rugby and it's delivering the results.
"I'm not 100% sure the World Cup final is going to be won by a very expansive game plan and wonderful tries," Erasmus said. "It might be. I might be wrong. But we will go and grind it out." Gatland spoke of the need to be accurate and take the set-piece out of the game, but the Welsh made mistake after mistake early on in a swirling wind to hand over field position.
Ross Moriarty fumbled twice at restarts in the first half. Adams leapt in the air and carried the ball into touch. In one erratic moment, winger George North mistimed a box-kick and ended up meeting it with a soccer-style volley upfield.
The Welsh were also under pressure in the scrum and didn't quite have the same physicality in the collisions. Wales escaped with a three-point deficit at halftime, but had lost North (right hamstring) and prop Tomas Francis (left shoulder), adding to their ever-growing list of injuries.
Then South Africa got the bug. At the start of the second half, Faf de Klerk and Willie Le Roux dropped high balls under no pressure near the touchline, conceding precious territory. When Dan Biggar kicked his third penalty, in the 46th, Wales was level and it was game on.
With 25 minutes left, Pollard gave South Africa some go-forward with two dynamic, piercing runs through the middle. When the ball was recycled out, De Allende palmed off Biggar, swatted aside replacement scrumhalf Tomos Williams, and forced his way over the line. Pollard converted for 16-9 but back came Wales.
After 19 phases on the Boks' line, Wales forced a penalty and captain Alun Wyn Jones opted boldly for a scrum instead of a kick at goal. The front rows came up but Wales' No. 8 got the ball away to Williams on the short side and it went via Jonathan Davies to Adams, who cruised over unchallenged. Halfpenny converted from the touchline and the game was again all square.
Pollard had the final say, though, keeping the Boks on course for a record-tying third world title.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80