Soon, Welsh rugby will realize what it has had and what it has lost. Not this World Cup campaign and this last heartbreaking near miss, but the coach and captain at the heart of it.
Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones have worn a country in their favorite sport. They are two giants of the game, one-off possessions for the Welsh cause. One is an outsider who is warmly embraced, the other a homegrown hero who is worshiped and revered.
One will leave his post in a week to return to New Zealand, the other will return to his household chores and keep going, but certainly without another World Cup in him at the age of 34.
South Africa has advanced to the final of the Rugby World Cup after narrowly beating Wales in its semifinal on Sunday
The Springboks players embrace the full-time whistle after a tough test against the Welsh
Handre Pollard kicks the winning penalty when South Africa booked their place in the Rugby World Cup final against England
Damian de Allende scored the game’s first attempt as he passed two Welsh defenders after a protracted attack in South Africa
The Allende is congratulated by his teammates after finally making a breakthrough after a nervous opening hour
However, Wales hit back almost immediately when Josh Adams continued his try-scoring run at this tournament with another
Adams is embraced by Rhys Patchell after being touched to improve the game with about 15 minutes to play
Wales now play against New Zealand in the playoff for third place in the last game of Warren Gatland
Wales: Halfpenny; North (Watkin), J Davies, Parkes, Adams; Biggar (Patchell), G Davies (Williams); Wyn Jones (Carre), Owens (Dee), Francis (Lewis), Ball (Beard), Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Wainwright (Shingler), Moriarty, Tipuric.
Penalties: Biggar (x3)
South Africa: Le Roux (Steyn); Nkosi, Am, De Allende, Mapimpi; Pollard, De Klerk; Mtawarira (Kitshoff), Mbonambi (Marx), Malherbe (Koch), Etzebeth (Snyman), De Jager (Mostert), Kolisi (Louw), Du Toit, Vermeulen.
Tries: The Allende
Penalties: Pollard (x4)
There is no doubt that without Gatland, the head coach of Midas-touch and Jones, the talisman captain, wouldn’t have had the era they just enjoyed. A small nation with limited resources has risen way above their weight thanks to the remarkable work of these two men.
Eight years after Wales lost a World Cup semifinal by one point, they lost it by three. What a hard end to the competitive line for a 12-year regimen that has delivered Grand Slams and titles and epic one-off wins.
Their responses were markedly different. Gatland had a philosophical tone. He spoke of his pride and no regrets.
It was different with Jones. The eyes of the big lock reflected a raw sense of loss and grief. He is one of the best, most influential players in the history of rugby in the British Isles. Sunday’s big – although ultimately boring – occasion somehow caused these big men to be spanked, but all the more appreciated.
Gatland evoked dizzying levels from a team that gradually disintegrated. They clung to an abyss in the first half as South Africa’s massive team assaulted them.
It was an act of pure, bloody rebellion. The Welsh spirit just wouldn’t break and that is testament to the responsible man. The Springboks continued to float their juggernaut in the thin red line and the thin red line remained just about intact. The Springboks continued to launch their air barrier and people like Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar kept jumping high and kept their team in the game.
The two teams observe a moment of silence for the victims of Typhoon Hagibis before kick-off in Sunday’s semifinal
Wales scrum half Gareth Davies kicks clear at the back of the ruck trying to ease the pressure on his side
Dan Biggar hits a penalty through the posts to make it 3-3 before Pollard scored three more runs for South Africa
Welsh winger Josh Adams is sandwiched between South African tackler Makazole Mapimpi and Siya Kolisi
There were a few snapshots that summarized how this arm wrestling struggled. In the first half, South Africa’s No. 8 sledgehammer Duane Vermeulen bumped into Tomas Francis and left the heavy Exeter gag in pain on the field, before being helped with a suspected dislocated shoulder. Wales hardly seemed able to fend off the attack, but when Gatland tackled them midway, they found a different level of intensity and primal involvement.
At one point in the second half, prop Wyn Jones flew over the ball at a ruck and resisted the brute force of a giant Eben Etzebeth attempted cleanup to win a penalty for his side. It was breathtaking courage.
Alun Wyn Jones had already shown that aspect of his extensive repertoire, but what he showed late in the game was his leadership class. His team chased the game and he made the kind of captaincy decision that makes or breaks World Cup campaigns.
When the Welsh received a penalty in opposition 22, he opted for a scrum, although that was an area that the Springboks dominated.
He trusted his backpack and they paid him back. Wales won the ball, they attacked on the left and Tomos Williams and Jonathan Davies teamed up to send Josh Adams to the left corner for his sixth attempt of the tournament. When Rhys Patchell reached the wide conversion, it brought the scoring level to 16-16.
Pollard added a third penalty to tick the scoreboard before Biggar cut the deficit to 9-6 intermittently
Winger, George North, was forced just before half-time with a hamstring injury several minutes before attempting to chase the ball
The former Northampton Saints star was visibly upset on the sidelines, fearing his world championship would now be over
Halfpenny crashed after a massive blow from South African Eben Etzebeth
Tempers threatened to boil over early in the second half with Jake Ball (No. 4) who faced De Klerk after a line-out
For a long time, parity seemed like an imaginative thought. Wales lost Francis and George North, who suffered pain with a hamstring injury. And they were besieged in one of the most boring periods of international rugby in memory.
Soon there was a clear pattern in the procedure. South African physicality. South African high kicks. Welsh high stairs. Welsh scramble defense.
It was terribly swollen. In the 15th minute, Handre Pollard landed his first shot to put the Boxing ahead. Three minutes later Dan Biggar responded in kind to Wales. Two minutes later, Pollard threw another penalty.
Five minutes before half-time, Pollard’s third penalty brought the favorites up 9-3 and it seemed as if they were gradually establishing a control position, without any finesse or fluency. So much for the performances.
De Allende had a lot of work to do when he received the pass, but took off two Welsh tacklers to cross the line
De Klerk (R) and South African flanker Siya Kolisi (C) celebrate after watching De Allende cross the line
Wales made the bold call to grab a scrum for the posts and reaped the rewards with Adams scoring in the corner
Halfpenny took over the kick duties and continued Adam’s attempt to make the score 16-16 with 15 minutes to go
Biggar hit the target on both sides of the break to keep Wales on the hunt, only for Damian de Allende to shoot past the fly-half and Tomos Williams for his only attempt, converted by Pollard. When Adams hit back, Wales was so close to the final. But it was not to be. Pollard’s late sentence ensured that.
England will see the juggernaut arrive and believe that when they take on the physical challenge, they have more layers in their game than the Boks.
Meanwhile, Wales will face New Zealand on Friday evening, but Sunday’s game was the highlight of the Gatland regime.
They went from toe to toe with a super power side, dragging them to the brink of defeat by the last four. One day, Welsh rugby will realize that these were intoxicating days.
South Africa took advantage of a late penalty as Pollard sent the ball through the posts to book their place in the final
Pollard kept his perfect tee record in the semifinals as he watched the ball fly through the posts to win the game
Welsh players look desperate on the bench as they see they have the last minute chance to reach the final slip
High fives all round for the South Africans in setting up a rematch of the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final against England