Battered and bruised and ultimately beaten, Wales and Warren Gatland’s World Cup dream ended at the hands of a giant South African outfit for the second successive tournament.
The 2015 reversal at the hands of the Springboks was tough to take for Welsh supporters, but this was worse, as there will be no second chance, no opportunity to right these wrongs.
Gatland and his players will feel this pain for a long time. The head coach won’t get another shot at global glory, not with Wales at least. Neither will his iconic captain Alun Wyn Jones. Senior players such as Ken Owens, Jonathan Davies, and Dan Biggar may not last four years until France 2023.
That is why this hurts for Wales. This was the best chance any Welsh team had of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup, yet while the despair was writ large across the faces of Jones and especially Davies at Yokohama Stadium last night, there was also a feeling Wales could not have done much more.
South Africa’s raw power, supreme physical advantage, and monstrous substitutes ultimately proved too much for Gatland’s men to overcome, even though they showed remarkable bottle.
In a tight and what would have been an entirely forgettable contest had it not been a World Cup semi-final, Wales rose from the dead after Damian de Allende’s try to tie the game at 16-16.
Had a long-range drop goal from Rhys Patchell sailed between the sticks Wales might have edged it, but it did not and South Africa went up the other end where their forwards did the business.
Behind a giant eight, Springbok half-backs Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard did the business. Pollard was the official man of the match, but it was De Klerk who bossed his team around the park.
It left Gatland — who will leave his role with Wales after more than a decade of remarkable success at the end of this World Cup — and his players gutted after months of toil saw them come up just short.
“It was a tough encounter, we knew it would be an arm wrestle, but we got back into it and then unfortunately we were penalised at the end and the game has got away from us,” Gatland said.
“I’m not taking anything away from South Africa. I thought they played really well. They were strong and physical, their scrum was good, and they drove pretty well. We knew they would take us on up front. There wasn’t a lot of flowing rugby played and it was about attrition.
“I’m very proud of the boys for not giving up and staying in there. With a little bit of luck and a bounce of the ball, it might have been different.”
Even without the wet weather that had been expected, this semi-final played out exactly as Gatland had predicted. The first half was a kick-fest, a poor watch for the neutral, but unbearably tight for supporters of the two sides involved. Pollard kicked three penalties to two from Wales’ Biggar.
Gatland would have been pleased to still be in the contest at that stage. South African scrum-half De Klerk taught opposite number Gareth Davies a box kicking masterclass.
Unusually, Wales were poor under the aerial bombardment and their mistakes allowed South Africa to play little rugby, but use their strengths of territory, a strong set-piece, and rolling maul.
There were two instances in the first half when Wales got joy by spreading the ball to the edges, but they weren’t able to repeat the feat often enough and lost two key men to injuries before half time.
Tomas Francis was poleaxed by the rampaging Duane Vermeulen and suffered a shoulder problem and George North pulled up lame chasing a Biggar kick. Wales’ problem was that whenever South Africa kicked possession, they struggled to take it cleanly. When they did get ball, their carriers were smashed and the Springboks piled into the breakdown to disrupt it. It’s easier said than done when there are bodies flying everywhere, but Davies needed to get the ball away quicker.
Biggar levelled the scores when the game resumed, but was then brushed off by Springbok centre De Allende who also shook off North’s replacement Owen Watkin and Tomos Williams to score.
Pollard had laid the platform for the score with a break and converted it too.
At 16-9 down, Wales looked gone but Gatland shook things up, his bench made a big impact, and the New Zealander’s team showed remarkable bottle and vigour to stay in the fight.
Williams replaced Gareth Davies at scrum-half and was excellent. Patchell stepped in for Biggar at No 10 and Wales looked to move the ball. They camped themselves on the Springbok line and opted for a scrum where hands from Williams and Jonathan Davies sent Josh Adams over.
It was Adams’ sixth World Cup try and he is now the tournament’s outright leading marksman.
With Biggar off the field, Leigh Halfpenny converted, but South Africa went back to what they know best after Patchell flirted with giving Wales the lead. Pollard kicked the goal after his forwards had done the hard work and that was that. South Africa will now play England in Saturday’s final.
Gatland’s last match with Wales will now be the dreaded bronze medal match with the country of his birth — New Zealand. “We can hold our heads high and leave Japan with a lot of respect. We’ve got another game to go and we play the All Blacks,” Gatland said. “My first game in charge was against England and the dream was for it to be my last game, but it’s not to be. We’re really disappointed about not being in the final, but we’ve got to be proud of ourselves.
After all the hard work we’ve done and what this group of players and coaches have achieved, Friday will be our last time together. We’re going to make sure we enjoy this week.
South Africa had outstanding performers in De Klerk, Pollard, and the entirety of their pack who were boosted by six forwards coming off the bench. They might have to play a bit more rugby to beat England in the final, but they are in with a shot, and Rassie Erasmus is working wonders in charge.
The former Munster head coach said: “We have given ourselves a chance. We have played England four times in the last 18 months and it is 2-2. We are accustomed to the way they play.
“They are much better than when we last played them. You could see that from the way they dismantled New Zealand. I’m not 100% sure a World Cup final will be won by a very expansive game plan and wonderful tries.”
Try: J Adams 65 Con: L Halfpenny 66 Pens: D Biggar 18, 39, 46
Try: D de Allende 57 Con: H Pollard 58 Pens: H Pollard 15,20,35,76
L Halfpenny 6; G North 6 (O Watkin 40,6), J Davies 6, H Parkes 7, J Adams 8; D Biggar 8 (R Patchell 59,7), G Davies 4 (T Williams 48,7); W Jones 6 (R Carre 55,7), K Owens 8 (E Dee 73,5), T Francis 5 (D Lewis 36,6), J Ball 6 (A Beard 60,6), AW Jones (capt) 8, A Wainwright 7 (A Shingler 69,6), J Tipuric 7, R Moriarty 8
W Le Roux 6 (F Steyn 69,6); S Nkosi 6, L Am 6, D De Allende 8, M Mapimpi 5; H Pollard 8, F De Klerk 9; T Mtawarira 6 (S Kitschoff 48,7), M Mbonambi 6 (M Marx 48,7), F Malherbe 6 (V Koch 48,7), E Etzebeth 6 (RG Snyman 53,7), L De Jager 7 (F Mostert 58,7), S Kolisi (capt) 7 (F Louw 69,6), PS Du Toit 7, D Vermeulen 8
Jerome Garces (France)