PARIS, France -- The match finished in a tussle, a fitting end to a Rugby World Cup semifinal where no quarter was given by either team. The Springboks led England for two minutes of the match - unfortunately for Steve Borthwick's team, those 120 seconds were the ones that mattered as Handre Pollard's 78th minute penalty gave South Africa a 16-15 victory and secured their spot in the final against the All Blacks.
England were heroic, but South Africa's mentality and self-belief is on another level to anything we've seen in this World Cup. For so much of this semifinal, they were the ones flapping in the deluge, while England played the wet weather rugby to near perfection. But the Boks stayed in the match - sometimes by their fingernails - and that fragile grip was enough to give them a platform to finally turn the tide in their favour.
And it was their much-trumpeted "bomb squad" (the name given to the Springboks' replacements, which helped win them the 2019 World Cup) which did the job. The second-half substitutions in the front-row saw the Boks win a run of four scrum penalties in the final quarter which allowed them to re-find their range and launch a series of attacks on the England defence which gave them the chances to turn this from a nine-point deficit in the 69th minute to a 16-15 win.
"We needed some energy, that is why we decided to bring the bench on," Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber said. "We are fortunate that there is not a lot of difference between the guys who start and the guys on the bench. We needed energy and they brought that."
The final scrum penalty came in the 78th minute. Ellis Genge was the player penalised by referee Ben O'Keeffe; Jamie George protested the decision, saying Vincent Koch had angled in, but the decision stood. Pollard lined up the penalty about 48 metres out, strolled up and was already running back to his posts before the ball had hit the height of its apex. He knew it was flying through, knew it was a one-point advantage and knew they had to refocus for the final England onslaught. "I had no doubt at all it was going over," Siya Kolisi said.
England threw everything at the Boks, just like they'd done for the entire match but this time they couldn't find the range, or draw the penalty. As the full-time whistle blew, the tensions overflowed, a tussle ensued but then the splattering of red rose heartbreak and Boks elation took over.
"The whole team performance was strong," Borthwick said. "We came here with a plan to win the game, and we fell a little bit short. We're desperately disappointed but the players should be incredibly proud of what they've done."
This was a match too tense to really enjoy. It was one of those occasions when you could feel your heart vibrating through your chest. It was intense - the opposite of Friday's semifinal - where every knock-on, turnover, scrum felt like it was crucial.
The conditions were horrendous, the rain swirling around the Stade de France, caught in the wind and barely given a chance to settle. England came into it with a simple, but brilliantly effective gameplan of targeting turnover ball off their kicking game and set-piece ascendancy. It worked. The Boks looked rattled for much of the first 40, with England dominating the set-piece, winning all three scrums, Maro Itoje getting ahead of Eben Etzebeth in the lineout, and the team generally playing efficient rugby. It was enough to give them a 12-6 lead at half time with the pack monumental, Freddie Steward dominating the skies, and Jonny May and Elliot Daly flicking anything and everything back England's way on the flanks.
The second half started much the same, with Farrell slotting a magnificent drop-goal from just inside the halfway line in the 53rd minute - a drop-goal fit to grace any World Cup match - but the Boks were showing signs of life.
The Springboks were outplayed for an hour or so, but it was their replacements which swung this match back in their favour. Each made the impact required - including the bold decision to hook Manie Libbok after just 31 minutes, replacing him with the experienced Pollard. Pollard brought far more control to their game, where Libbok's kicks were all over the place. Faf de Klerk came on at the start of the second-half, Willie Le Roux after 44 minutes and each just contributing to halting England's momentum a touch.
And then came the front-row changes which then gave the Boks the platform to launch their match-winning journeys into England's half. RG Snyman's try in the 69th minute came off the back of the third of four scrum penalties, which gave the Boks a chance to get a key lineout just a few metres from England's line. It was his bulk which was enough to break England's resolve but then came the knockout blow from Pollard with two minutes left on the clock.
"Firstly the scrum penalty, that is what got us the opportunity," Pollard said. "It was just a credit to them, they were unbelievable, 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."
This was a match again underlining the Boks' remarkable self-belief and complete trust in the system they've implemented. Just like 2019, South Africa have found ways to win the closest of matches - wrestling things over the line in the final throes to ensure they progress, and the defeated team are wondering how exactly it all happened.
"It took us some time to get to grips with it," Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber said. "I think that's probably the strength of this team, they find a way, even if we don't pay well, they find a way to get the result. It took them 70 minutes to get them a foothold in the game. They refuse to give up and they fought to the end - very proud of that."
For England they now have to get themselves off the canvas and ready for Argentina on Friday in the bronze medal match. This will sting for a while. This will be some player's final tournament in an England shirt, for others, they'll use this hurt as motivation for the next four years. "We came here to win a game to get to the Rugby World Cup final," Borthwick said. "In adversity, there's some seed there that can be something brilliant in the future. Right now, it's too early to find that seed. We'll make sure we find it - we'll take it, and we'll grab that and make sure it makes us stronger in the future."
"It was really ugly today but that is what champions are made of," Kolisi said at full time. The All Blacks will have a plan in place but so will the Boks. It's going to be box office. The Springboks are into another final, and have a shot at winning their fourth men's World Cup. It's a remarkable feat, and testament to the entire system they've built. Regardless of the players filling the jerseys, they have this inner belief which is impossible to quantify or replicate.