Warren Gatland will get his wish for one final crack at New Zealand before he retires after 12 years as Wales’s head coach, but Friday’s bronze play-off was not what he had in mind. His side were battered and bruised by a typically abrasive South Africa in a match of few thrills but several spills that was settled by a Handré Pollard penalty five minutes from time.
South Africa will meet England in Saturday’s final, a repeat of 2007 when Eddie Jones, who was in the crowd here, was part of the Springboks’ management team as a consultant. Their style of play has changed little in the 12 years since and they overcame Wales by protecting the gainline.
South Africa kicked the ball the first eight times they took possession as the match lived up to its billing as an aerial contest. It took an advantage for the Springboks to dare to attempt a pass and so shocked was Handré Pollard that he dropped the ball with a defender nowhere near him.
Pollard kicked the penalty to restore the lead he had given his side from the tee after 14 minutes. Wales quickly equalised when an enterprising move from a line-out that saw George North provide an extra man in the line and force Willie le Roux to step offside, for Dan Biggar to turn to profit.
Jones and his defence coach John Mitchell were among the spectators who were treated to rather less movement than the evening before when the holders New Zealand were eliminated. The opening half ran at a kick a minute with Wales shading it 21-19 although they made a few more passes than their opponents’ 28.
South Africa sought refuge in the set-pieces and mauls as they looked to wear down Wales and force penalties. Pollard kicked his third six minutes from the end of the opening half after Ken Owens entered a ruck from the side, but Biggar reduced the interval deficit to three points with his second kick.
Wales had by then lost two players to injury. The prop Tomas Francis left the field clutching his left wrist after Duane Vermeulen was given too much room after gathering a restart and had broken into a gallop when Francis crouched low to bring down the No 8.
Two minutes before the break, the wing George North pulled up as he tried to run on to Biggar’s cross-kick and suffered a hamstring strain, but Wales were level shortly after the restart. Faf de Klerk dropped Leigh Halfpenny’s kick downfield into touch and when South Africa jumped across the line-out, Biggar accepted the three points.
Neither side was making a case to take on England. There was an awful passage of play when Wales had three kicks charged down in and around their 22 in less than a minute but South Africa were unable to keep hold of the ball and when Gareth Davies kicked it towards halfway, Willie le Roux followed De Klerk’s example.
The last tryless semi-final was in 1999 when Rassie Erasmus was in South Africa’s back row in their 27-21 extra-time defeat to Australia at Twickenham. Neither side had come close to the other’s line after 55 minutes: South Africa had not made much of an effort while Wales struggled to achieve quick possession and struggled to get the ball beyond the first receiver as the Springboks protected the gainline.
And then, as if from nowhere, Pollard surprised Wales first with an offload and then by running into their 22 where he got away from a prop, Rhys Carré, before being hauled down short of the line. South Africa had a penalty advantage and moved the ball to the left where Damian de Allende shrugged off Biggar’s tackle and took Tomos Williams and Owen Watkin over the line with him.
A second try came along almost at once. Rhys Patchell, on for Biggar, kicked a penalty to within five metres of the line. Wales’s driving maul was held up and they spent 20 phases trying to batter their way over without making a centimetre. They were awarded a penalty and surprised South Africa by opting for a scrum.
South Africa drove forward, forcing Wales’s front row to stand up. The referee Jerôme Garcés let play continue and Jonathan Davies freed Josh Adams on the left for the wing to score his sixth try of the tournament, more than anyone else. Halfpenny converted from wide out to level the scores.
Wales kept coming, but when Francois Louw forced Alun Wyn Jones to hold on, South Africa achieved position and a set-piece to set up a maul. When Dillon Lewis strayed offside, Pollard landed his fourth penalty and time ran out for the team that, at the wrong moment, remembered how to lose.