England led for the entire match before Handre Pollard’s boot — from about 50 metres — swung the Springboks into a second straight Rugby World Cup final at the very end and cruelly denied the English again.
The Springboks finally broke the English scrum, and once again their hearts, to reach the Rugby World Cup final and have a chance at back-to-back titles.
Defending champions South Africa were second-best to England’s smart tactics and precise execution for the best part of 70 minutes of their semifinal at Stade de France on Saturday before what’s becoming a traditional great escape by the Boks saw them steal a thriller 16-15 and set up a title decider next weekend against their fiercest rival, New Zealand.
One of them will win a record fourth World Cup and, with England’s agonising exit, the trophy is set to stay in the southern hemisphere once again.
By next Saturday night, the southern hemisphere will have won nine out of 10 Rugby World Cups.
South Africa’s brute force at scrum time won it against England, as it so often does. But it only came in the dying minutes of another white-knuckle knockout game at this World Cup as replacement props Ox Nche and Vincent Koch produced a huge, desperate heave to win a penalty for South Africa near halfway and set up replacement flyhalf Handre Pollard for the game-winning kick with under two minutes left.
Pollard nailed it, as he did with a late kick in another epic 29-28 Springboks win from behind in the quarterfinals against host France.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a lot of relief in this moment,” Pollard said. “Frustrated we weren’t at our best tonight, especially in that first half. We knew we had so much more to give but fair play to England, they put us under pressure in exactly the right areas.
“But, jeez, the fight we showed never giving up, it is what we stand for as a team and as a nation.”
South Africa has beaten England in the quarterfinals, semifinals and in two finals at the Rugby World Cup, including the title game four years ago.
“After a difficult loss like this all that stands with me is how proud I am to be English,” said England captain Owen Farrell, who also lost in the 2019 final to South Africa. “You can always look back at things but South Africa are a top, top side. They have shown that over the course of the World Cup.”
England was minutes from sweet revenge for all those painful Springboks experiences having executed its gameplan to perfection to be in control for most of the match at Stade de France. England sent kick after kick from scrumhalf Alex Mitchell at the base of the ruck or from Farrell at flyhalf down onto the Springboks, who struggled with the high bombs all day in the rain in Paris.
England won almost every contestable kick and was sharper in every facet, and Farrell gave the white shirts the scoreboard dominance they deserved with four penalties in the first half and a drop goal from long range early in the second half for a 15-6 lead.
The drop goal evoked memories of Jannie de Beer’s five drops for South Africa to flatten England in the quarterfinals of the 1999 Rugby World Cup. The 15-6 scoreline was the same that England lost to the Boks in the 2007 final in Paris.
England fans, who came to France this time with very limited expectations given the team’s dire pre-tournament form, belted out “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
England, surprisingly, was rumbling toward the final having been written off before a ball was kicked in France.
And then it turned.
The Boks went to their bench. The comeback began in the 69th minute with a try by replacement lock RG Snyman, who powered over on only the Springboks’ second visit to the England 22 of the second half. Pollard’s conversion closed it to 15-13.
The Springboks’ set piece misfired for most of the game — mostly down to English pressure — but they won a scrum nearly halfway in the closing minutes having worked their way out from deep in their 22. Nche, Koch and the rest of the pack went to work, the scrum screwed sideways and the Boks won the penalty they were looking for.
Pollard, thrown on as early as the 31st minute when it was all going wrong for South Africa, sent the highest of pressure goal kicks through the middle.
“That is probably the strength of this team,” South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber said. “They find a way, even if things are not going our way, to get a result. It took them probably 70 minutes to get a foothold in the game. They just refused to give up.”
Nienaber, who will leave after the World Cup, might have thought his time was up in the semis. He put his head down on a desk in the coach’s box and covered it with his hands at the end as the Springboks erupted in celebration on the field.
He has one more game to leave the No. 1-ranked Springboks at the very top.