2019 Rugby World Cup Semifinal Review

Sunday 27th October

Wales vs South Africa

Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

After the intensity, physicality, and effort of the previous day’s semifinal between England and New Zealand, the game between Wales and South Africa was always likely to be a wholly different game altogether.

Where the previous game was all about massive pressure and helter-skelter pace, the next semifinal was predicted to be a chess game – tactical, probing, conservative and very likely dour.

And so it was.

Both teams play the same kind of pressure rugby – both use the box-kick to the side-line to force pressure on the kick-receiver, both kick for territorial gain, both kick for tactical gain.

Both use their forwards as battering rams that heap pressure on opponents and look to choke off any attack right at the source.

Both teams have superlative defensive systems.

This was also a do-or-die semifinal, and finals rugby is almost never pretty rugby.

Quite bluntly, with so much riding on the game both teams would be looking for an error free 80 minutes while hoping for a couple of mistakes by their opponents.

And that is exactly the way it panned out.

Yes, it was dull. 

Yes, it was predictable, and yes, it was a game that did not provide anything for the enthusiasts of festival type rugby to enjoy. 

It was never going to be that kind of game.

If you were not a supporter of either of the protagonists, then it was likely going to be boring.

In all their previews the pundits predicted a kicking game, and that is exactly what they got. This was a festival of kicking.

Leigh Halfpenny, Willie le Roux, Gareth Davies, Faf de Klerk, Dan Biggar and Handré Pollard took it in turns to hoist the ball up into the air, sending designated chasers to contest its return to earth, and try and get their team on the front foot. 

The ball was as slippery as the proverbial bar of soap after 100mm of rain had soaked the field in the lead up to the game, making handling and catching the ball a bit of a lottery at times, with countless errors and the result was an inevitable set-piece battle.

With the more powerful pack, the Springboks were very happy to play this game all afternoon. This was meat and potatoes to them.

Wales, inculcated into playing a very similar style of rugby, responded by trying to match the Springbok kicking game when it might have served them better to try and keep the ball in hand and relentlessly test the Springbok defence out in Sbu Nkosi’s channel. He was the rookie and the most inexperienced of the Springbok defenders, and it showed. Wales showed no variety in their game and no Plan B to try and disrupt the Springbok mindset.

Throughout the game it seemed that South Africa had the edge in both the kicking and set-piece battle, while their defence was, as always, simply impregnable, save for the single blip that saw Wales score their try. That blip came off a tactical error by the Springboks in trying to shove Wales off their scrum ball rather than simply defending the channels. A moment’s thought would have said that Wales’ choosing to scrum from a penalty signalled their intent to go wide as they had no chance of going for a push-over try against the might of the Springbok pack. 

Sbu Nkosi should have been told to stay wide, while Pieter-Steph du Toit was charged with flying off the side of the scrum to defend the inside channel. It was a poor read.

Whichever way we look at it, there was a certain inevitability to the Springboks’ eventual win, even while Wales stayed in the contest right up to the bitter end.

Yes, for the briefest of moments, in the 72nd minute of the game, Rhys Patchell had a chance to take the lead with a late drop-goal attempt, but his forwards could not provide a stable enough platform for the ball to be passed back to him with enough time and space to take a measured kick. For ten phases they battered at the green wall, and gained not a single meter forward, being driven back in the contact by the Springboks at every attempt, save for about a half-meter on a single occasion when Josh Adams tried to worm his way forward.

When Patchell initially called for the ball from Tomos Williams, he was just inside the Springbok 22m area. When he eventually got the ball, he was seven meters inside the Springbok half and retreating, and had Faf de Klerk coming at him like a homing missile. There was no time, no space, and no position for his drop attempt. He had a go anyway, and drifted wide and into Handré Pollards arms.

And that was the end of the Welsh challenge. 

It was a microcosm of the entire game – a brave Wales trying desperately to find a chink in the armour of the Springbok battle tank as it rolled inexorably forward. They tried, but just could not crack the defences.

A minute later the Springboks had the penalty that they immediately sent to the corner for the lineout drive, earned another penalty, and Handré Pollard has secured the win. (There is some dispute about the penalty as Jerome Garces told Alun Wyn Jones that it was for the “red player on the ground” which was debateable, yet in the same maul substitute prop Dillon Lewis had entered from the side and the penalty was clearly justified for that entry. The Welsh commentators Gareth Thomas and Mike Phillips, together with their guest commentator Bryan Habana, initially all thought it was Lewis that was justifiably pinged!)

A final summation of the match – The Springboks were bigger and more physical, their set-pieces were better, their maul was superb, and their defence outstanding. Perhaps their execution lacked something, and they made some silly mistakes, but in the end they controlled most of the game and were deserved winners. 

Yes, it was dour, boring, bash and thud rugby.

It was ugly rugby.

But that is often what finals rugby is all about. Just to win the game and get off the field.

South Africa can look ahead to the challenge of their third Rugby World Cup Final. They know England are in a good space and looked awesome against the All Blacks.

They will also know that they have just beaten Wales, and Wales have beaten this same England outfit twice in 2019. 

Individual Player Assessments.

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux 5/10

Willie is being crucified on social media. One of my friends even demanded that he be hauled off the field in the middle of the first half with an uncomplimentary epithet describing the fullback. He is certainly the shadow of the player that he was just 12 months ago. Yet, he was not that awful on Saturday.  He showed plenty of courage as he took the high ball against Leigh Halfpenny, his defence in the last line was solid, he linked well a couple of times. Perhaps the most “invisible” part if his game is his work on defence, and the contribution he made here is being overlooked by those calling for his head. His hands are very jittery at the moment, and his kicking was sometimes a little wayward, but in truth it was an average performance, rather than a poor performance.

14 Sibusiso Nkosi 4/10

His lack of timing on the defensive rush often caused space on the outside, a problem caused by his lack of game time in the “A” test lineup. Fortunately the cover defence of Willie le Roux and Makazole Mapimpi shut the barn door behind him. The game was never going to give him much time on the ball, but he did show one good flash of skill with a great break. 

13 Lukhanyo Am 5/10

A very good defensive display, making his tackles and putting pressure on Jonathan Davies. Did not see much of the ball as he did not get involved in the direct carrying of his midfield partner, preferring to hang off the collision areas.

12 Damian de Allende 9/10

Once again a superb performance by the inside centre. Enormous work rate, tacking like a demon, chasing everything that moved, and shutting down spaces. Dan Biggar knows what it is like to run into Damian de Allende, and is not going to forget that moment soon.  Gave the Springboks vital go-forward and his try was a display of power and strength in going over despite a host of red jerseys trying to stop him. I am still impressed with the way he stays in the tackle and tries to ruck over the ball. 

11 Makazole Mapimpi 7/10

No chances with the ball in hand, and struggled a bit under the high ball, but it was the work he did off his channel that impressed. His cover defence lines were simply superb. Time and again he was there to support Willie le Roux in the last line of trenches as they closed the hole left by Sbu Nkosi. That is why gets a 7/10!

10 Handré Pollard 7/10

This was not a flawless performance, his natural game is being supressed by the Springbok kicking game plan. Great initiating play in Damian De Allende’s try. One great line-break showed how lethal he can be on attack. Kicked off the tee like an automaton. This was a calm and controlled display. 

9 Faf de Klerk 8/10

After all the opprobrium heaped on his head last week, Faf de Klerk simply carried on as if nobody had said a word. He controlled the pace of the game superbly, his box kicks were effective, his line kicking accurate and he tested the Welsh defence around the edges too. His defence was, again, superlative.  His distribution was fairly accurate. Just a silly damp ball fumble in the second half marred a nearly flawless display. That final, deft touch-finder at the end of the game was the straw that finally broke the Welsh camel’s back.

8 Duane Vermeulen 8/10

You have to be really brave, or silly, or both, to allow Duane Vermeulen to gather the ball and then pick up both speed and momentum before you try and tackle him.  Welsh prop Tomas Francis did that, and his semi-final was over in the 35th minute. A dislocated shoulder for his efforts.  It was a typically Duane Vermeulen moment. He carried with power, smashing and bashing through defenders. He tackled like a brick wall too.

7 Pieter-Steph du Toit 8/10

Just a little off his “A” game last weekend, he took a short while to get going in this one. But was soon at his very best, with a huge defensive effort as he covered the whole field and seemed to have something personal against the Welsh ball-carriers. Once he was into his stride, he simply kept going for the whole game.

6 Siya Kolisi 7/10

Solid defence, solid carrier, solid cleaner and counter-rucker. One great run. Handled referee Garces with subtle politeness. A good day at the office for the captain.

5 Lodewyk de Jager 7/10

Boy, does he look fresh or what? After missing most of the Super Rugby season he is certainly the freshest lock in the Springbok camp, and it showed with a strong performance on both defence and carrying the ball. Gave much oomph to the scrum too!

4 Eben Etzebeth 7/10

His aggression around the fringes and in the tackle is getting back to his best, as is his ball-carrying. Disrupted the Welsh set piece, contesting lineouts, where he was somewhat surprisingly pinged by referee Garces after jumping for a ball and missing.  Provided some real muscle in the scrums too. 

3 Frans Malherbe 7/10

Just getting better with each game. He was huge in the scrums, giving Wyn Jones a torrid time, while his work rate in open play is superlative. His instinct to gather a loose ball is special for a prop forward.

2 Bongi Mbonambi 5/10

Somewhat quite in open play, but did his job in the scrums and lineouts. Good defence. Just not quite the sparkle we expect from him.  

1 Tendai Mtawarira 7/10

Solid. Not spectacular, but as solid as the Drakensberg range. The foundation stone of a very effective Springbok scrum.

Replacements:

16 Malcolm Marx 8/10 (on for Mbonambi, 48th minute) 

He is hungry! Massive impact with the ball in hand and defending the entire field. 

17 Steven Kitshoff 7/10 (on for Mtawarira, 48th minutes) 

Solid in the scrum, solid in the rucks and mauls, and very good on defence. That was his job in this game, and he did it 100%.

18 Vincent Koch 8/10 (on for Malherbe, 48th minutes) 

Possible his best game in a Bok jersey, albeit in the dim and dark recesses of the hard stuff where timid men are scared to go. Scrummed like a monster, and made an unbelievable 10 tackles in 33 minutes.

19 Rudolph Snyman 6/10 (on for Etzebeth, 52nd minute) 

Better than last week, He was solid in all aspects of his play. Effective in the lineouts and mauls, he covered plenty of ground too.

20 Franco Mostert 6/10 (on for De Jager, 58th minute) 

Industrious, although not quite as much impact or power as the man he replaced. Needless penalty.

21 Francois Louw 6/10 (on for Kolisi, 68th Minute) 

Came on and immediately made his presence felt at the breakdowns, contesting the ball, slowing it down, with one superb steal. Made his tackles.

22 Herschel Jantjies

Not used

23 Frans Steyn 5/10 (on for Le Roux, 68th minute)

A little invisible when he came on, and did not do anything different or better than the man he replaced. 

Wales

15. Leigh Halfpenny – 5/10

Steady as a rock under the high ball. Kicked well out of hand too. No sparkle though. 

14. George North – 6/10

Tried to get involved across the park, but did his hamstring just before halftime to end his day and likely his tournament. 

13. Jonathan Davies – 7/10

Kept in check by Lucky Am, but still showed enough in attack and defence and assisting Josh Adams for his try.

12. Hadleigh Parkes – 4/10

Overpowered by Damián de Allende, and struggled to contain the Springbok all afternoon. Invisible on attack.

11. Josh Adams – 7/10

Very good defensive shift, good under the high ball too. Scored Wales’ try.

10. Dan Biggar – 6/10

Struggled with his tactical kicking although his goal-kicking kept Wales in it – Was monstered by De Allende. Wales looked better when Patchell came on.

9. Gareth Davies – 4/10

Struggled with the pressure brought by Faf de Klerk, and his box-kicking suffered under the pressure of the Springbok loosies and De Klerk. Not his best game. 

8. Ross Moriarty – 5/10

Not of the same standard as Josh Navidi. Managed to keep his discipline in check which had been a worry for some Welsh commentators beforehand. Some silly fumbles and slips. No real impact.  

7. Justin Tipuric – 7/10

Did his best to counter the big Springboks, and gave his all. Did not rind a combination working with Moriarty. 

6. Aaron Wainwright – 7/10

Gave everything he had. Enormous effort. Was overshadowed by PS du Toit though.

5. Alun-Wyn Jones – 9/10

A huge effort in every aspect of the game, including captaincy, although his continual arguments with the referee might not have served his team well, the Frenchman does not listen to anyone other than Romain Poite.

4. Jake Ball – 5/10

The most physical of the Welsh players, sometimes seeming to be going just too far in terms of legality. His vignette with Faf de Klerk was amusing

3. Tomas Francis – 5/10

Creaked a bit in the scrums, but kept at it. His tackle on Duane Vermeulen was badly executed and cost him his shoulder. 

2. Ken Owens – 7/10

A real battler. He tried his best, often with his face in the dirt. His lineouts were good. Tackled hard.

1. Wyn Jones – 5/10

Creaked in the scrums although he held up fairly well. All field play was a bit anonymous. 

Replacements

Elliot Dee – 5/10

Not really enough time to settle and make an impact. 

Rhys Carré – 6/10

Did what he could, but found himself on the receiving end of Springbok scrum power. He will have learned from this game.

Dillon Lewis – 5/10

Spent most of his time on the field trying not to succumb to the pressure in the scrums.

Adam Beard – 4/10

Did not bring anything onto the field when he arrived. Seemed a little overwhelmed by the moment.

Aaron Shingler – 4/10

Wholly anonymous outing.

Tomos Williams – 7/10

Much better than the man he replaced. Covered an awful lot of ground and did so quickly and accurately. Perhaps he should be starting for Wales?

Rhys Patchell – 6/10

Maybe he should have started? Better than Biggar in almost every respect. Brought some intent to the Welsh back division. Drop goal attempt was a bit ambitious.

Owen Watkin – 5/10

Did his job on the wing, where he had not expected to play. Did nothing wrong, but no sparkle.