YOKOHAMA, Japan — South Africa will seek its third Rugby World Cup title after defeating Wales, 19-16, in the semifinals on Sunday.
The Springboks could be the first team to win the tournament after losing a match in the pool stage. But to do it, they must defeat England, which impressively dismantled New Zealand, the tournament favorite, on Saturday.
South Africa lost its opening pool match against the All Blacks, 23-13, but cruised through the rest of its pool matches and defeated Japan, the upstart host nation, 26-3 in the quarterfinals. Japan had gone through its pool undefeated, with impressive wins over Ireland and Scotland.
The match against Wales on Sunday was a defensive struggle that featured a lot of tactical kicking, with both teams alternating between short, high “box kicks” and long punts to gain a territorial advantage.
“It was a real grind,” said Handré Pollard, the South African flyhalf, who was named player of the match. “We knew it was going to be. We prepared ourselves mentally for an 80-minute battle. It was two sides that play a pretty similar type of game.”
Pollard and his Welsh counterpart, Dan Biggar, accounted for all of the scoring in the first half, with Pollard converting three penalty goals and Biggar scoring two, leaving South Africa with a 9-6 halftime lead.
Pollard’s first points came on a short-range kick in the 15th minute, and Biggar equalized three minutes later, after the South Africa defense was caught offside.
Strong work by the South Africa forward pack in a scrum at 20 minutes and with a driving maul at 34 minutes led to Wales penalties that Pollard easily converted to make the score 9-3. A dangerous South Africa tackle gave Biggar an opportunity to close the gap to 9-6 shortly before the half ended.
The second half began much as the first, with both teams playing cautiously and showing nervousness. Another South Africa penalty allowed Biggar to tie the score at 46 minutes.
South Africa scored the first try of the match 10 minutes later on an outstanding individual effort from inside center Damian de Allende, who took a pass from Malcolm Marx, eluded a defender and dragged two others over the try line to place the ball down for the five-point score. Pollard added the conversion kick to make it 16-9.
Not long afterward, Wales had the ball deep inside the South African red zone and pressed the Springboks defense for about three minutes and more than 20 phases of play, but South Africa look as though they might keep the Welsh from getting over the try line.
But Wales gained a penalty advantage and sent a long pass out wide to the left wing Josh Adams, who scored. With Biggar having gone off for a substitute, fullback Leigh Halfpenny lined up for the long conversion from near the left touch line, a very difficult kick. But the kick was on target, and the match would go down to the wire.
In the closing minutes, substitute flanker François Louw won a turnover for South Africa in the Wales half, and with four minutes to play Pollard struck the winning penalty. In the closing moments, a clever kick from scrumhalf Faf de Klerk pinned Wales deep in their own end, and after another turnover, South Africa was able to run out the clock and secure a spot in next Sunday’s final.
South Africa’s coach, Rassie Erasmus, was relieved to get past a team that in recent years had South Africa’s number. “It was nerve-racking at the end, and I must say that losing the previous four matches against them it could have gone their way again. I have so much respect for Wales, because they are really a class outfit.”
Erasmus added that he thought the South Africans had regained some stature after having gone through a flat period in recent years.
“But we’re only halfway there,” he said. “We would love to win the World Cup. We play a class England team in the final now, but we’ve really got a chance and we might go all the way. You never know.”