What we learned from Bok win
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: It wasn’t much of a spectacle, but it had a hugely tense finish as South Africa slotted a penalty with four minutes to go to break Welsh hearts and book a Final showdown with England.
Here are five things we learned from the semifinal in Yokohama:
Grinding it out
The stats don’t lie – it wasn’t a classic of free-flowing rugby. There were an astonishing 81 kicks in 80 minutes of play.
Maybe over-awed by the occasion, world-class players seemed unable to collect the simplest of balls cleanly, resulting in 12 scrums, many of which had to be reset several times.
In contrast to the England-New Zealand semifinal, when the crowd barely had time to breathe, the dreaded spectator wave was deployed after only 20 minutes of dire rugby and the most noise they made was belting out “Sweet Caroline” at half-time.
Both camps admitted it wasn’t great for the neutral.
“There was not a lot of flowing rugby played,” said Welsh coach Warren Gatland, adding that the Springboks “might have to be a bit more expansive” to beat England in the Final.
Handre Pollard, the Springbok flyhalf, said there were no regrets about their style of play. “Grinding it out is something we believe in. That’s what it takes to win play-off games and World Cups,” he said.
Size doesn’t matter
One of the biggest cheers of the night was when livewire Springbok scrumhalf Francois de Klerk – who was again a constant threat – squared up to giant Wales lock Jake Ball, their mismatched confrontation beamed onto the stadium big screen.
As a boxing bout, it would not be allowed. De Klerk, instantly recognisable with his flowing blonde locks, stands 5ft 7in (1.72m) and weighs 13st 12lb (88kg). Ball, equally unmissable with his shaggy beard, is 26 centimetres taller and 36kg heavier.
Ball grabbed De Klerk’s shirt collar, as the two went nose-to-nose with De Klerk grinning broadly may prove to be one of the images of the tournament and became an instant social media hit – one wag comparing it to famous cinema kisses.
De Klerk said it was important to show that even though he is the shortest man on the pitch, he was not cowed. “We are great friends mate, it was just a nice moment between us,” joked the scrum-half after the match.
Again flyhalf Handre Pollard ended up being the difference between the two sides, winning his kicking battle with opposite number Dan Biggar – just like in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final.
In that match at Twickenham, Pollard scored 18 of his team’s 23 points, with five penalties and a drop-goal.
Fast forward four years to Yokohama and it was a faultless performance by Pollard again – four penalties and a conversion giving him a total of 14 points, including the tricky final kick at 16-16 that sealed it for the Springboks.
“There were some nerves of course,” admitted Pollard, stressing however that he had trained for the mental challenge of kicking under pressure.
“You want to be in those position as a flyhalf and as a kicker. You want to have that pressure on you and you execute.”
Brutal Bok ‘bomb squad’
Coach Rassie Erasmus again selected six forwards among his eight replacements and it paid off for him once more with a stunning defensive effort at the death from fresher legs.
The likes of Rudolph Snyman, Francois Louw and Frans Steyn made the difference as Erasmus even hauled off his captain Siya Kolisi for the “finishers” – or “bomb squad” as they are known in the Springbok camp.
“There were a few contributions from guys that came off the bench that made massive differences,” said Erasmus.
Bittersweet for Alun Wyn
It was a bittersweet evening for Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones who won his 142nd international cap (his British and Irish Lions appearances included), drawing him level on second place in the all-time list with Italy’s Sergio Parisse.
He can go one better if, as expected, he is selected for the third-place play-off game against the All Blacks – only legendary New Zealand captain Richie McCaw ahead of him on 148.
Visibly emotional at the end of the game, the hulking giant said:” It wasn’t our day but I’m still proud to pull this jersey on and represent all the people in red in the stadium.”