YOKOHAMA, 27 Oct - South Africa can make Rugby World Cup history on Saturday after finally muscling their way past an injury-hit Wales in a dramatic if unspectacular game to reach the final, against England back in Yokohama.
No side has lost a pool game, as the Springboks did their opening match against New Zealand, and gone on to lift the trophy. To become the first, Rassie Erasmus's side will have to improve on their semi-final display, for they will find England's awesome forward pack far harder to overpower than Warren Gatland's brave but weary players.
Gatland has the finale to his 12-year tenure he dreamed about, against his native New Zealand, but it will be in the bronze final at Tokyo Stadium on Friday and not the final.
The Kiwi reckons the Springboks will have to adopt a more expansive game than the kick-fest they deployed against Wales if they are to overcome England, who ruthlessly and imperiously ended the All Blacks' reign as champions on Saturday.
"It wasn't a great spectacle," said Erasmus. "We know there are areas that we have to improve, but we have given ourselves a chance against England. It is two-all in our last four meetings with them but we know they have improved since then by the way they dismantled New Zealand.
"But we will go and grind it out. I am not sure if a World Cup final will be won by a very expansive game-plan and wonderful tries. It might be - I might be wrong."
South Africa were sliding down the world rankings after losing to Italy and being well beaten by Ireland and the All Blacks before they turned to Erasmus in 2018. In less than two years he has taken them to the verge of adding to their Rugby World Cup triumphs in 1995 and 2007.
"It has surprised me how quickly we have been able to turn things around," he said. "There was a stage in South Africa when being a professional rugby player was just earning a good pay-cheque. Now they understand they have to work really hard.
“I’ve always felt that we have the potential in South Africa to be a force in world rugby. We don’t have the money England have, but we have the player pool."
The match lacked the intensity of England's game the night before and Eddie Jones - watching from the stands with defence coach John Mitchell - will surely fancy his team's chances against South Africa after this. It is a repeat of the 2007 final when Jones was on the Springboks' management team as a consultant.
A spectacle it was not. South Africa set out to grind Wales into submission up front, leaving Handre Pollard to kick the points. The fly-half scored 14 without a blemish and took the Player of the Match award.
Pollard kicked the final match-winning points with four minutes left after the Springboks forced a turnover then a penalty. At the time it seemed the momentum had swung Wales's way after a stirring fightback despite the loss of two players just before the interval.
"With 76 minutes on the clock and at 16-all I thought we had a bit of momentum, but they got the turnover and then the penalty," said Gatland.
"We tried to move the ball but once we were in that arm-wrestle it was about attrition. The boys never gave up. They had four penalties in our half and that's the difference between winning and losing these tight games.
"We are disappointed, but we will leave Japan with a lot of respect. It would have been a dream to play England in the final in my last game as Wales coach, but it was not to be.
"Friday is our last game together and we want to enjoy that. We've had a few injuries but there are no excuses as South Africa deserved to win the game."
Wales had already been weakened by the loss of full-back Liam Williams and back-row forward Josh Navidi, with ankle and hamstring injuries in the week of the semi-final.
They suffered a double blow just before the interval with prop Tomas Francis forced off with a shoulder problem before winger George North followed him a few minutes later after pulling up with a hamstring strain.
Dan Biggar did land a second penalty to reduce the arrears to three points at the interval, after an opening half dominated by box-kicks, mainly from Faf de Klerk.
Biggar levelled the scores on 45 minutes when de Klerk spilled an easy catch into touch, with Wales winning a penalty from the resulting lineout.
Just before the hour mark South Africa finally created some space. Centre Damian de Allende, pictured top just before scoring, used his power to force his way over from just inside the 22, with Biggar and replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams hanging off him.
🗣 "It wasn't our day but I'm still proud to pull this jersey on and represent all the people in red in the stadium."@WelshRugbyUnion captain Alun Wyn Jones reflects on his nation's defeat to South Africa in the #RWC2019 semi-final 🏴#WALvRSA #WebbEllisCup pic.twitter.com/iYLGjHWDxV— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 27, 2019
To their credit, Wales roared back and were rewarded after going through 23 phases close to the line, then opting for a scrum having forced a penalty.
Centre Jonathan Davies put Adams over in the corner for his sixth try - making him top try scorer in the tournament and equalling the Wales Rugby World Cup record set by Shane Williams in 2007.
Halfpenny brilliantly converted from the touchline and Wales were level again at 16-16.
But with Wales inside the Springboks half, Louw won a crucial turnover. The Springboks eventually forced a penalty which Pollard slotted over to break Welsh hearts again, just as they did in the quarter-final in 2015.
"My face tells the story," admitted Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones, who surely will not be around in 2023. "I am hurting, we're disappointed. We still have an opportunity to make a bit of history on Friday but there is no real consolation in anything."