If there was one image which summed up the passion and fight England brought to a beautifully ugly semifinal it was that of a tearful Freddie Steward quivering with emotion as he belting out God Save The King before kick-off.
The recalled Leicester full-back, with hands like shovels, gave a magnificent lead on the pitch, ruling the skies majestically on a filthy night where the high ball was king. The conditions put a spoke in the wheels of the Springboks’ running game but they could never have expected their power game would short-circuit so badly too.
England’s forward effort was heroic. They competed superbly and tackled ferociously, harrying South Africa into error after error. Tom Curry was everywhere.
England, immediately going to the air in the swirling rain, got away to the perfect start as South Africa coughed up two penalties inside the opening ten minutes and Owen Farrell knocked them over. Optimistic ripples of Swing Low rang around the Stade de France from the flood of fans who had crossed the Channel.
When England’s pack – bolstered by Manu Tuilagi – successfully resisted South Africa’s first attempt at a lineout rumble near the England line, the roar grew louder. Even more so when George Martin hit Franco Mostert with a colossal tackle in the next play. The most physical side in world rugby were being given a taste of their own medicine.
When Farrell was marched back ten metres and into Manie Libbok’s range for hanging onto the ball, South Africa’s stand-off got his side on the scoreboard with a penalty.
But, after Farrell had made it 9-3 with another penalty, South Africa’s coaching team decided radical action was needed and substituted Libbok in the 31st minute. Leicester’s Handre Pollard came on in his place.
Pollard cut the deficit five minutes before the break after Billy Vunipola – temporarily on as a blood replacement for Tom Curry – coughed up possession in England’s 22. But Farrell, striking the ball magnificently, drilled a long-range kick over to make it 12-6 to England at the break.
Given all the pre-match predictions it was a scarcely believable scoreline. Within four minutes of the restart, South Africa’s scrum-half Cobus Reinach and full-back Damian Willemse had been hooked too. South Africa were rattled on all levels.
When Farrell hammered over a huge drop goal from just inside South Africa’s half in the 53rd minute it was looking like England’s night.
The England half-backs were controlling the game, pinning the Boks back with the boot and, forced to chase the game, the mistakes kept on coming.
The only workable weapon the Springboks had – after the introduction of the destructive Ox Nche off the bench – was the scrum. But it was a significant one.
When Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe whistled England for collapsing, Pollard hammered the kick into the corner and substitute second row RG Snyman battered his way over for a converted try from the lineout. With ten minutes left, England led 15-13.
But South Africa flyhalf Handre Pollard kicked a penalty three minutes from time to send his nation into the final, where they face New Zealand.
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