YOKOHAMA (Reuters) - A hush. A dull thud. Brief silence. A roar. That was the sound of South Africa reaching their third Rugby World Cup final on Sunday. It was also the sound of Welsh hearts breaking.
When Handre Pollard fired over his 76th-minute penalty to nose the Springboks three points ahead, the die was cast.
They had been the stronger, bigger, harder men throughout the 19-16 win in Yokohama. It is with no small irony that the South Africans are known as Springboks — a medium-sized antelope.
“Our forwards were great tonight,” Pollard said. “They got us momentum, they got us a bit of front-foot and they got us penalties. In tight matches, that’s what it’s about.”
The South African game plan was obvious. Coach Rassie Erasmus had loaded his bench with six forwards and only two backs.
“As you can see, the coach doesn’t hide it,” captain Siya Kolisi said. “He goes straight for the six-two split because we want our forwards to take out everything... and the guys we bring on, you know you have got nothing to worry about - when you go off, the other guy is going to come on and bring it even more.”
But while the giants of the veldt certainly laid the foundations of this victory, it was one of their smallest men, Faf de Klerk, 1.72m tall in his green-and-gold socks, who orchestrated it with smart box kicking, probing, darting runs and tough tackling when needed.
Where de Klerk ran the show, Pollard was the dead-eyed marksman, his 14 points decisive. Already South Africa’s leading points scorer at World Cups, he moved up to 140 with Sunday’s kicking masterclass.
This match was always going to be won by the boot. Even the rugby purist might have been tempted to reach for the television remote, as the first half was more rugby pinball than anything else.
The contrast between this contest and Saturday night’s breathtaking England win over New Zealand could not have been more stark.
But this, too, was rugby.
“It was a tough physical match,” Welsh coach Warren Gatland said. “I take my hat off to them... it was a real arm wrestle, a really tough encounter.”
Wales had beaten South Africa in their last four meetings but never at a World Cup. The Boks overall record over Wales had stood at 28-6, with one match drawn. That was the more telling statistic.
The Boks got on the board first with a 15th-minute Pollard penalty, and, to a point, that was key. It meant that the Welsh were forced to play catch-up throughout with their increasingly tired minds and beaten-up bodies.
When centre Damian De Allende brushed off Dan Biggar to crash over the line, it had looked like the end for Wales. But the Welsh are nothing if not durable, and found a way to stay in touch, with winger Josh Adams plunging over eight minute later.
His try was greeted by the sound of Tom Jones over the stadium speakers singing: “It’s not unusual”. To be fair, though, it was. And that struck at the heart of the Welsh quandary in Yokohama.
This team lacks the flair of some golden Welsh teams, but as a team unit they have been fantastic.
But with little creativity on tap, and faced with a wall of brawn, Welsh options were always going to be limited, even if they could not be faulted for lack of heart.
“We punch massively above our weight in terms of the playing numbers they have in Wales so I’m really proud of these guys,” Gatland said. “They’ve given us 100 per cent.”
But for a third demoralising time, the Welsh were found wanting after reaching the last four.
In 1987 the All Blacks put paid to their hopes, and in 2011 it was the French, by a single point. On both those occasions the Welsh finished with 14 men on the field. They stayed at full strength on Sunday, but really how they could have done with 16 men on the field. Or 17 even.
The dream of reaching a first World Cup final had flickered for most of the match, but never quite brightly enough, and instead it was South Africa who reached their third final, having lifted the trophy in 1995 and 2007.
“We’re in the final of a World Cup so that’s some respect (we have won) but we’re only halfway there,” Erasmus 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.”
Editing by Tony Lawrence