South Africa come out on top in a slow, kick-heavy semi-final
2019 Rugby World Cup: The Springboks do just enough in unsexy “arm wrestle” with Wales
After their victorious Rugby Championship campaign this season, South Africa crept through in a slog of a warm-up Test against Argentina in Pretoria to win 24-18.
After it, director of rugby Rassie Erasmus said: “All week, I knew it was going to be a grind and that it wasn’t going to be a free-flowing game.” For all intents and purposes, they had prepared to win ugly. And who knew that would be perfect preparation for their future months, heading towards Japan.
In their World Cup semi against Wales they won 19-16. But things were level at 16-16 with 76 minutes on the clock. It was what Warren Gatland would later describe as an “arm wrestle”. There were 81 kicks from hand in the match. The pace was much slower than the other semi-final held in the same stadium in Yokohama, the night before.
Some may have considered it drip-torture, the way it was won. But Springboks fans won’t care.
In 2017 the Springboks were decimated by the All Blacks, 57-0. A proud rugby nation felt wounded. What counts for double now after they have made it to the World Cup final is that they are winning Test matches.
For all its South African significance it was a performance devoid of emotion. Wales now head into the ‘bronze final’ – an obligatory third-place play-off that must feel the booby prize that you run the gauntlet to collect. And you can still finish fourth. And it’s against the All Blacks.
If we all believed in fitting send-offs for great servants, Warren Gatland would see his Wales tenure end in a World Cup final. We would also get to see the once-in-a-generation talent of Alun Wyn Jones performing on that grandest stage. But we won’t.
Of course, they played their part in this performance, willingly. And there were a few ‘if only’ moments. A break down the left was over-run by Jonathan Davies and there was a forward pass. There were penalty advantages spurned. There were injury stoppages too – Tomas Francis and George North both went off in the first half, the first with a shoulder injury and the other with a hamstring problem.
It’s not that this Test was just 80 minutes of pig-hideous, dour play either. Damian De Allende kept the defence honest with his runs and he cut through Dan Biggar and Tomos Williams to score his try. Ross Moriarty at No 8 kept hammering too, with a flicked pass to Williams, who found Jonathan Davies for another pass to try-scoring Josh Adams – a lovely touch.
But it was the syncopation of box-kicks – clock devouring plays that threw up doubt as well as the ball – that defined so much of this game. Faf de Klerk was criticised for this before the game, but he stuck to his task. Gareth Davies followed suit. At one point there was a series of charged-down punts and a few daisy cutters going in, that almost deserved a soundtrack of slide trombone.
Eddie Jones said after England’s win that he hoped this would be a 3-3 draw, with extra-time, more of a draw, then more extra-time. Well, he didn’t get that, but it was gruelling. Grinding, even. Something Erasmus was prepared for against Argentina.
Back then, he talked about learning when they were winning ugly. It’s no prettier now. However, it’s a grand departure from a few years back.
Related: Rassie Erasmus slots a drop-goal
Erasmus was flattered to hear that Gatland believed that the Springboks could go all the way. He also talked about the changes since 2017. But he added “let’s play the final first” to see if they had really turned the corner properly.
You can get England to win at odds of 8-13 already with bookmakers and they are the favourites. Their game looks all the more dynamic. Gatland made an interesting comment about how teams can sometimes play their final a round early. If that’s the case, we have a week for both sides to create something explosive for the real final.
Really winning is all that counts. But it would be great if we got fireworks anyway.
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