PARIS, France — The match ended in a fight, a fitting end Rugby World Cup A semi-final where neither team made the quarter. The Springboks led England for two minutes of the match – unfortunately for Steve Borthwick’s side, those 120 seconds mattered as Handre Pollard’s 78th-minute penalty gave South Africa a 16-15 win and their place in the final against the All Blacks. .
England were heroic, but South Africa’s mentality and confidence is on another level than what we have seen at this World Cup. For much of this semi-final, they were the ones basking in the deluge, while England played wet-weather rugby to near perfection. But the Boks stayed in the match – sometimes by their claws – and that tenuous grip was enough to give them a platform to eventually turn the tide.
And it was their much-hyped “Bomb Squad” (the name given to the Springboks’ replacement, which helped them win the 2019 World Cup) that did the job. Second-half replacements in the front row saw the Boks win a run of four scrum penalties in the final quarter that allowed them to rediscover their range and launch a series of attacks on England’s defense that gave them a chance to turn around. It rallied from a nine-point deficit in the 69th minute to win 16-15.
“We needed some energy, so we decided to bring on the bench,” Springboks head coach Jake Nienaber said. “We’re lucky there’s not a lot of difference between the guys starting and the guys on the bench. We needed energy and they brought it.”
The final scrum penalty came in the 78th minute. Ellis Genz was the player penalized by referee Ben O’Keefe; Jamie George protested the decision, saying Vincent Koch was involved, but the decision stood. Pollard lined up a penalty about 48 meters out, strolled in and the ball was already going back to his post before it hit the height of his top. He knew it was going to fly, knew it was a one-point advantage and knew England needed to refocus for their final attack. “I had no doubt it was going to end,” Sia Kolisi said.
England threw everything in the box, just as they had done throughout the match but this time they couldn’t find the range or draw the penalty. As the full-time whistle blows, excitement overflows, a brawl ensues but then Red Rose heartbreak and box office cheer.
“The whole team’s performance was strong,” Borthwick said. “We came here with a plan to win the game, and we fell a bit short. We’re desperately disappointed but the players should be incredibly proud of what they’ve done.”
It was a really exciting match to enjoy. It was one of those occasions when you felt your heart pounding through your chest. It was intense – the opposite of Friday’s semi-final – where every knock-on, turnover, scrum felt like it mattered.
Conditions were dire, with rain swirling around the Stade de France, caught in the wind and barely given a chance to settle. England came up with a simple, but brilliantly effective gameplan targeting ball turnover from their kicking game and set-piece surges. It worked. The Boks looked rattled for most of the first 40, with England dominating set-pieces, winning three scrums, Maro Itoje getting ahead of Eben Etzebeth at the lineout and the team playing generally efficient rugby. The monumental pack, Freddie Steward dominating the skies, and Jonny May and Elliott Daley turning anything and everything England’s way on the flanks was enough to give them a 12-6 lead.
The second half started much the same, with Farrell slotting a superb drop-goal from just inside the halfway line in the 53rd minute – a drop-goal fit to engulf any World Cup match – but the Boks were showing signs of life.
The Springboks were beaten for an hour or so, but it was their substitutions that turned this match in their favour. Each made the necessary impact – including the brave decision to hook Manny Liboc after just 31 minutes, replacing him with the experienced Pollard. Pollard brought a lot of control to their game, while Libock’s kicking was all over the place. Faf de Klerk came on early in the second half, Willy Le Roux after 44 minutes and each contributed to stopping England’s momentum a touch.
And then came the front row changes that gave the Bucks the platform to launch their match-winning march into England’s half. RG Snyman’s try in the 69th minute came off the back of the third of four scrum penalties, allowing the Bucks to get a key lineout just meters from the England line. That was enough to break England’s resolve but the knockout blow came from Pollard with two minutes left on the clock.
“First scrum penalty, that’s what got us,” Pollard said. “It was a credit to them, they were incredible, it was a big moment but that’s what you want as a player on this stage, moments like that as a fly-half live for you. It was fun.”
It was again a match that showcased the Bucks’ tremendous confidence and complete faith in the system they had implemented. Just like in 2019, South Africa have found a way to win the closest matches – wrestling things to the final throws to ensure their progress, and the losing side wondering exactly how it happened.
“It took us a while to catch on,” Springboks head coach Jack Nienaber said. “I think that’s probably the strength of this team, they find a way, even if we don’t pay well, they find a way to get a result. It took them 70 minutes to get their foot in the game. They refused to give up and They fought to the end – very proud of that.”
England now need to get themselves off the canvas and prepare for Argentina in the bronze medal match on Friday. This will last a while. It will be the final tournament for some players in an England shirt, while for others, they will use the injury as motivation for the next four years. “We’re here to win a game to go to the Rugby World Cup final,” Borthwick said. “In the odds, there’s some seed out there that could be something bright in the future. Right now, it’s too early to find that seed. We’ll make sure we find it—we’ll take it, and we’ll grab it and make sure it’s our future.” Makes it stronger.”
“It was really ugly today but that’s what champions are made of,” Kolisi said at full-time. The All Blacks will have a plan but so will the Bucks. It’s going to be box office. The Springboks have reached another final, and are aiming to win their fourth Men’s World Cup. This is a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the systems they have built. No matter how many jerseys the players fill, they have this inner belief that is impossible to measure or replicate.