PARIS – For the first time since 1995, the Springboks will play the All Blacks in the World Cup final after Handre Pollard and a monstrous scrum inspired the defending world champions to a 16-15 come-from-behind win over England at the Stade de France.
Trailing 15-6 after 67 minutes, Pollard, the World Cup-winning playmaker who incredibly wasn’t even included in the Springboks’ initial 33-man squad, found touch seven metres out from the halfway line after a scrum penalty.
Minutes later, replacement second-rower RJ Snyman powered his way over the line. Pollard added the extras to cut the deficit to two.
Then, off the back of another dominant scrum as Ox Nche and Vincent Koch went to town, Pollard, with ice running through his veins, nailed a penalty from just shy of halfway to give the Springboks the lead for the first time.
England had one final chance, but after 11 phases Billy Vunipola spilt the ball and South Africa’s place in the World Cup final was sealed.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s a lot of relief in this moment. Frustrated we weren’t at our best tonight, especially in that first-half,” Pollard said.
“We knew we had so much more to give but fair play to England, I think 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.”
Trailing 9-3 at the half-hour mark, the Springboks’ genius coaching team of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber made the crucial change, as Manie Libbok was replaced for Pollard.
While initially it made little difference, with England taking a 12-6 lead at half-time before extending it via Owen Farrell’s long-range field goal after 53 minutes, the Springboks never looked flustered once Pollard was joined by his long-time halves partner Faf de Klerk on the field.
The early introduction of the halves weren’t the only coaching masterclass, with towering lock Eben Etzebeth withdrawn after 45 minutes for Snyman.
Panic stations? Not for Erasmus’ side, who play for more than themselves.
“You don’t have the right to worry about your mistakes,” Erasmus told his team before the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
“You are not representing yourself.
“You are fighting for the things that happen in South Africa. If you play badly today, you don’t have the right to drop your head. It’s not about you.”
Then came the crucial changes, as Nche and Vincent came on.
Immediately, the cracks in the English tight-five appeared.
Indeed, the “Bomb Squad” had arrived.
For England, who had earlier matched the Springboks at the scrum and the maul, it was a matter of holding on.
They looked like they would for 68 minutes. That was until Pollard’s brilliant long-range touchfinder.
A poor up-and-under from Freddie Steward soon after – as the fullback knocked on his own kick – was all the Springboks needed for their front-row to smell blood.
Pollard, who missed the opening stages of the tournament because of a calf injury, stepped up and knocked over his most important points since his 22-point bag killed off Eddie Jones’ English side in 2019 in Yokohama.
“Firstly the scrum penalty, that is what got us the opportunity. It was just a credit to them, they were unbelievable,” Pollard said.
“It was a big moment but it is what you want as a player on this stage, to have moments like that as a fly-half is what you live for. It was fun.”
As the Springboks once again jumped into the air to celebrate a week after knocking over France 29-28, England collapsed. Tears spilled out.
“It has not all gone our way as everybody knows, we have had everything thrown at us – it has been a rollercoaster,” Farrell, who kicked all 15 points for England, told the BBC.
“I’m glad where we have built to, but gutted we don’t have a crack at the big one next week. I am massively proud of this group and I hope everyone back home is as well.
“We came up with a plan during the week and the weather conditions played a part in it as well. We started the game really well, we shocked them at times and they made a few changes to change what they were doing.”
For the best part of the opening hour, England had played the perfect game.
On a dreary day, tailormade for England, Farrell and his halves partner Alex Mitchell had out-boxed the Springboks.
All night they fought for it on the deck and in the air.
Courtney Lawes, the Northampton Saints veteran, typified England’s performance.
Leading 6-3, it was the blindside flanker was the player who got to the loose ball first after a wild Damian Willemse pass under pressure from Steward. Three points soon after followed.
It was Lawes who got onto the ball to steal it as Kurt-Lee Arendse made some precious and rare metres down the blindside after a clever lineout play involving the tryscoring machine.
He wasn’t the only one either, with Steward dominating the air and England’s wingers Jonny May and Elliot Daly doing everything they could to make life hell for South Africa’s small outside backs.
Even England’s maul had stopped the Springboks dead in their tracks in the first half, as the three-time world champions repeatedly kicked for the corner and came away with nothing.
When Farrell banged over a field goal from 46 metres out in the 53rd minute, which was followed by a dropped ball from Jesse Kriel soon after, it looked like Erasmus’ tricks had run out.
Siya Kolisi, the inspiring captain, and his back-row partner Duane Vermeulen were replaced.
The moves worked a treat, as the Springboks wore England down. Eventually, they finished over the top of them.
The turning of the tide came when hooker Jamie George popped up at the scrum on South Africa’s own line moments after Arendse had spilt Farrell’s grubber in the 60th minute.
At the time, Morgan Turinui said in commentary for Stan Sport: “That was the match there for South Africa. If they concede points there they’re done.”
They didn’t and, as it turned out, that was the moment England’s wheels began to fall off.
After the great disappointment of a night earlier, where the All Blacks’ progression was assured after 42 minutes against Argentina, this was a match to bring back oxygen and life into a World Cup that had fallen flat.
Now, the world has been presented with a late gift, with the two southern hemisphere giants to play for the first time since Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park in 1995.