They said it would be close but this was like putting two scorpions in a bell jar to fight over dwindling oxygen. The stadium in Yokohama was a cauldron filled with high contact, physical bruising. In the first half the expected kicking game marginally went Wales’ way while the Springboks’ maul was a rumbling beast, just barely contained.
Rugby Championship winners South Africa facing Grand Slam winners Wales. A country with twenty times the population of Wales sending a green and gold army. Southern hemisphere champions fronting up to the northern hemisphere’s red dragons.
The Welsh head coach had had to deal with a slew of injuriesduring the week. The loss of Liam Williams because of training ankle injury meant bringing in the hugely experienced Leigh Halfpenny to replace him. The volatile and muscular Ross Moriarty also came into the team instead of the sadly hamstringed Josh Navidi.
One of the challenges of this match, Warren Gatland thought,was not getting bored whilst playing a kicking game against the Springboks. In the end it wasn’t the most entertaining game to watch, but both teams gave their all.
Springboks’ coach Rassie Erasmus expected Wales to produce quality play, especially based on their Six Nations performances. He’d had to wring some changes because of injury, particularly explosive, high stepping winger Cheslin Kolbe being replaced by gifted youngster Sbu Nkosi.
Leigh Halfpenny’s aerial skills were on display right from the off, seizing a ball in mid air but S.A. turnover led to the test of the first scrum pretty much in the first minute, Wales not giving an inch.
Clever South African box kicking put Wales under pressure and a second scrum held strong but a South African penaltyby Pollard, after Tipuric found himself trapped, put three points on the board.
Great attacking play by Wales was subsequently rewarded with a penalty, slotted through the posts by the ever dependable boot of Dan Biggar.
The set scrum by South Africa saw the Welsh pack finally succumbing and a South African penalty rewarded for a further three points.
A punt gun passage of kicking saw some poor aerial work with South Africa putting together their first testing flow of play. A Pollard penalty after Owens came in from the side extended the greens’ lead.
Thomas Francis leaving the field was a sobering sight especially after South Africa’s marauding mauls and solid scrums but Wales’ backs then put some phases together, probing and testing the defensive line. George North pulled a hamstring and had to walk off.
A Welsh penalty allowed Biggar to gain another three points.
At half time the game was finely balanced, Wales three points adrift and forty tense minutes from the final.
An unlucky De Klerk, fumbling a Halfpenny kick into touch gave Wales their first maul followed by another Welsh penalty kick, Biggar equalising the score, nine all.
Wales seemed to slip up a gear, but kicks bounced off facing players.
A mini comedy of errors ensued, both sides fumbling and scrabbling. Wyn Jones proved excellent at the break down, forcing an S.A. penalty with the Welsh backs subsequently springing forward. The Springboks ready response was a try by inside centre Damian de Allende, shrugging off Dan Biggar and Tomos Williams as he powered over the line. Pollard’s conversion added to the pressure, with Wales now on the back foot.
Relief came in the form of a Welsh penalty, Patchell kicking them into a corner leading to a passage of attritional, multi phase forward pressure on a green line that proved unyielding.
Warren Gatland wanted his team to ‘leaving nothing behind, using the tank as much as we can.’ Alun Wyn Jones earned his 133rd cap by finding an extra tank. The man described by Shane Williams as ‘the greatest Welsh player of all time’made the biggest decision of the game. He chose to scrum rather than take a straightforward three points under the posts and it reaped rewards when Josh Adams gathered a pass from Davies to become the leading try scorer in the competition, sliding in at the corner. Halfpenny levelled the score.
Moriarty started to muscle further into the game forcing S.A to come in from the side. The resulting penalty put Wales where they wanted to be, in the South African half but green breakdown pressure gifted them a penalty kick after a driving maul caught Dylan Lewis coming in off the side. Wales 16, South Africa 19. Five minutes in the pressure cooker.
Back in their own 22 Alun Wyn Jones knocked on in the line out and an ensuing scrum wheeled.
A bruising test of character and determination had not found the Welsh wanting but finally green and gold power finally won through, despite a final, surging Welsh rally in the closing ten minutes.
South Africa were through to their third World Cup final. Wales had given their all but had been denied their first experience of one in Tokyo next weekend. Rugby is many things, but it is often a game of serious heartbreak.