A burst down the short side from a strong attacking scrum enabled skipper Fourie du Preez to score the try in the corner that clinched the Springboks a nailbiting 23-19 win over Wales at Twickenham on Saturday that books the South Africans a fourth World Cup semifinal in six attempts.
It was close, desperately close. There were just seven minutes left on the stadium clock when the Boks set their scrum 10 metres out from the Welsh line. The South Africans were trailing by one point, and in danger of being blown out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage for the second successive time.
The crowd could sense this was the big moment in the match, the players could sense it too. The first scrum went to ground, but when it was reset the Boks were rock solid as they heaved Wales backwards. As it began to wheel Duane Vermeulen, an impressive and important part of a strong second-half Bok performance, held the ball up, swivelled and threw it out to Du Preez.
The scrumhalf saw open space on the blindside and ran for his life. The dive over the line saw the Springbok players go wild with jubilation, and the many green and gold clad Bok fans in the massive crowd erupt with excitement and, no doubt, immense relief that their team was going to survive to fight another day in this tournament.
The Bok try looked a probability for a long time in the second half as the momentum swung their way comprehensively after a first half which they just shaded in terms of possession and territory. But because of a combination of poor decision making, low return from contestable kicks and the Welsh wizardry at the breakdowns, they just trailed on the scoreboard (13-12) when the break came.
However, while the first 10 minutes of the second half saw the Welsh forced to make almost 50 tackles, and slowly but surely it looked like the Boks were fitting the noose around their necks, somehow the brave Welsh survived. They survived and survived, and for a long time it looked as though they’d taken their cue from Australia, who did the same thing when the Welsh attacked in the Pool A decider here last week.
An early penalty attempt from Pollard was missed, and it looked like the luck might be against the Boks as almost immediately the Welsh won a penalty on their next visit to the South African half. The Welsh did tend to profit more from their visits to opposition territory on the day than the Boks did. Up stepped Dan Biggar to kick it, and the Boks were four points behind after 46 minutes.
A drop goal from Pollard after a sustained attack eventually looked like it was running up a blind alley brought the Boks back to within one point five minutes later. Then Pollard kicked a penalty from out on the left that made up for a second miss, again from an acute angle, and put the Boks into the lead at 18-16 after 61 minutes.
With 19 minutes to go and the Boks dominating possession and now almost completely in the ascendancy when it came to the territorial battle, surely the Boks would now draw away? They didn’t. One thing the Boks consistently got wrong in this match was their work at the restarts after they had scored, and it cost them dearly in the first half and again when the Welsh forced the penalty that allowed Biggar to reclaim them a two-point lead.
South African hearts would have been getting that sinking feeling when the match moved beyond the 70 minute mark and the Welsh were in possession and in the Bok half. But they survived the mini onslaught, played their way back into the Welsh half, and put themselves in position to win it off that pivotal scrum.
Before Du Preez went over for the winning try, the match was horribly reminiscent for South Africans of the quarterfinal defeat to Australia in Wellington in 2011. There were no refereeing problems this time, and Wayne Barnes officiated quite well, but the South Africans dominated all areas of the game outside of the breakdown in the second half. Just like four years ago.
Back then though it was the Boks who were leading going into the final minutes. A Danie Rossouw mistake at a lineout was what presented Australia with the penalty that won them the match. This time the Boks trailed, and it has to be said that they displayed huge temperament to win like they did.
That temperament, and the guts, drive and determination displayed after halftime, is going to be crucial going forward for it was patently obvious that the Boks lacked attacking incisiveness. Their decision-making was abysmal for much of the way, and they deserved to win simply because in the end their big ball carriers just kept hammering away and eventually their opponents wilted. You have to wonder if that will suffice against New Zealand, if it is indeed the All Blacks they end up facing in the semifinal here next Saturday.
Both teams would have felt they wasted opportunities before halftime. Wales had a clear try-scoring chance wasted when a ball was passed over unmarked outside centre Tyler Morgan and directly into touch.
That was during a strong Welsh opening onslaught which the Boks survived for eight minutes before settling and setting up the foray into Wales territory that led to Pollard kicking his first penalty. A 3-0 lead after the Boks had been under pressure for most of the way was a good way to settle the Bok nerves, and they steadied further when Pollard kicked a second penalty as the Welsh were again pinged by Barnes at the breakdown.
Talking of breakdowns, that was where the Bok intent was frustrated in that first half, with Wales turning the South African possession over eight times before halftime. It prevented the Boks from sustaining the pressure that might have led to a try.
Wales struck back with Biggar’s first penalty after 14 minutes, but then Du Preez’s men re-established the six-point buffer with another Pollard penalty. Most of Pollard’s kicks were from difficult angles, which excuses him a bit for the two kicks he missed.
The big moment in the match for the Welsh was the try they scored when Biggar beat Willie le Roux in the air off a hoisted kick and he sent scrumhalf Gareth Davies alongside him in for the try that put the Welsh ahead for the first time in the match with the conversion.
An example of the poor decision-making that blighted the Boks and prevented them from taking the lead they deserved into the break came when Biggar hit the post with a long range penalty attempt. Schalk Burger, who was brilliant throughout and thoroughly deserved his man of the match award, made his one mistake in the game by opting to run the ball himself after it bounced into his hands. He was tackled, the Welsh were awarded a scrum, and Biggar put over the drop kick that put the Welsh ahead at the break.
The Boks will be pleased to have survived, but they will need to address why it was left so late when they so comprehensively dominated possession and territory, and forced the Welsh to make nearly twice as many tackles, before they play their semifinal.
South Africa 23 – Try: Fourie du Preez; Penalties: Handre Pollard 5; Drop-goal: Handre Pollard.
Wales 19 – Try: Gareth Davies; Conversion: Dan Biggar; Penalties: Dan Biggar 3; Drop-goal: Dan Biggar.