Wales extended its run of never winning a World Cup semifinal when it went down 19-16 to the Springboks on a blustery Sunday night, and will go into the bronze medal playoff for the third time. It won't get any easier for the injury-plagued Welsh squad, with the two-time defending champion New Zealand All Blacks awaiting them at Tokyo Stadium next Friday.
That'll be New Zealander Warren Gatland's last game in charge after 12 years with Wales. It'll be Steve Hansen's last in charge of the All Blacks, who were on track for a third straight title until a 19-7 loss to England on Saturday. Obviously, both teams still have a lot to play for.
New Zealand remains the only top-tier team Gatland hasn't beaten as Wales coach and he knows the All Blacks very rarely lose two tests in a row. South Africa's previous victory over Wales was a 23-19 quarterfinal win at the 2015 World Cup, clinched with a Fourie du Preez try in the 75th minute. The Welsh won all four tests against South Africa between that World Cup and this one in Japan, so they were confident right until the end.
"At 76 minutes on the clock, 16-all, I thought we had a bit of momentum," Gatland said. "We were significantly in their half. There was a big turnover from a breakdown. From there, they got a penalty from a lineout drive."
In an attritional game filled with handling and close calls, one last error — by replacement prop Rhys Carre, coming in at the side of a South African rolling maul — made a massive difference. Handre Pollard calmly slotted the penalty, extending his perfect kicking record to four penalties and a conversion, to make the final margin three points.
"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." The Six Nations Grand Slam winners were never in front, but were never far behind, either, despite a mounting injury toll. The game delivered on expectations for a tight, physical contest at the breakdowns and a lot of kicks — 81 from hand in all.
South Africa led 9-3 but penalties from Dan Biggar on either side of halftime made it 9-9 approaching an hour. Biggar missed a tackle when Damian de Allende barged across to give South Africa a 16-9 lead, but the Welsh responded quickly and with intent.
After turning down a chance at a long-range shot at goal, Wales won the close-range lineout to pressure the Springboks line. After 19 phases failed to breach the South Africa defense, Wales was awarded another penalty and again captain Alun Wyn Jones went for a set piece instead of an easy three points. South Africa got the initial shove in the scrum, but Wales cleared the ball to the left wing and Josh Adams dived over to make it 16-14.
Leigh Halfpenny calmly slotted the conversion from three meters in from touch to level at 16-16. "I thought we'd get a chance. It didn't feel like it was a game too far at all," Gatland said. "To be fair, those games against South Africa in the last five or six years have all been tight, close encounters that could have gone either way."
The Welsh overcame adversity to hold off two-time champion Australia and top Pool D, then rallied late to beat a 14-man French lineup 20-19 in the quarterfinals. Now they've got a five-day turnaround before the All Blacks.
"It's a pretty big challenge ... you're playing the All Backs (and) they're probably hurting as much as we are," Gatland said. "It's a tough game that third-fourth playoff, but you've got to give it the respect it deserves.
"Last game in charge of Wales against the All Blacks is hugely monumental." Flanker Justin Tipuric said it was important to give Gatland a positive send off. "There's a chance there to make history. We could have created history tonight, and it may not be the same, but we could make history and actually finish on a high by beating the All Blacks," he said. "We've got to bounce back up and crack on with next week."
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