There was no last-minute moment of magic to rescue the Boks last night as their World Cup dream perished in a Twickenham night air that was as thick with drizzle as it was with drama.
As heart-wrenching as it was for South Africans all over the world to see their team fail by just two point in a game that was rich with the grand old rivalry between the teams, the reality was that the Kiwis were the better team, but only just.
There was courage and character from a Springbok team has risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the Japanese defeat six weeks ago to almost beat the world champions in the semi-final, but not enough skill, and the winners scored the only two tries of the match, which is an indication that they were worthy winners. But again, only just!
There is no question that the vigour of the Springbok defence had them rattled for long periods of the game, especially in the first half, but there was always the feeling that the dam wall would break given the Boks were just about tackled off their feet as they spent much of the game pegged deep in their half.
But while they never gave up, they did not look like scoring a try either, and all their points came via the boot. Crucially, the Boks lost four lineouts on their throw, one of them with eight minutes to go and not far away from the All Blacks 22. A minute before, they had a brilliant attacking opportunity from a lineout near the All blacks line but were shoved back in the maul, and from the ensuing ruck lost the ball.
On moment such as that, World Cup semi-finals are won and lost. There was also a crucial moment as the game hit the three-quarter mark when a goalable penalty for the Boks was overturned because Victor Matfield, who had just come onto the field, had held an All Black around the neck.
But the All Blacks also had their moment of silliness. With nine minutes to go in the first half, after relentless waves of All Blacks pressure had almost culminated in try before the Boks conceded a penalty, All Blacks loosehead prop Joe Moody, a former wrestler, had Duane Vermeulen in a head lock, and TMO intervention resulted in the penalty being reversed.
The All Blacks showed increasing frustration that they could neither score nor get into a rhythm, and two minutes before half time that bubbled over into Kaino being yellow-carded when he ventured offside and cynically kicked the ball into touch. Pollard rubbed salt into that wound by nailing three points to take the Boks into a 12-7 half time lead.
The failure of the All Blacks to score points, despite their significant advantage in territory and possession, pressurised them into mistakes, notably kicking the ball away in attacking positions. That was a nod in the direction of the ferocious Springbok tackling.
And as the players trooped off at half time, the fine drizzle of the first half thickened into steady rain which should have suited the Boks right down to the greasy ground – the tighter the game the better for them against a side that loves to throw the ball around in fast, dry conditions.
There is no question that the New Zealanders were worried to their core and their half time chat in the change room lasted just long enough for coach Steve Hansen to tell then to get back out on the pitch and sort it out, and the All Blacks spent much of the break doing drills in the rain.
Could the Boks cash in on eight minutes of second half with a one-man advantage? They did not have a good start when the inevitable high bomb in the rain was dropped by Willie le Roux, but from the ensuing scrum, the Boks shoved the Kiwis off their ball and were given the put-in for the next one.
But the Boks could not get out of their half and it was Carter to score the first points of the half through a well taken left-footed drop kick.
The Boks simply could not reverse their territorial disadvantage half and when Schalk Burger lost the ball in the tackle in front of the posts, it was inevitable the All Blacks would score, and they did, despite Bryan Habana tapping down a pass, with Beaudon Barrett, on for injured wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, going over in the corner on the end of an overlap.
Habana was yellow carded for his sins, and the Boks were now suddenly five points behind and a man down, and with it all to do at 12-17.
Pollard pulled three of those points back when the Boks again earned a penalty from a set scrum, but that was almost immediately undone when the Boks stupidly gave away a penalty at a ruck from the kick-off, and the five-point advantage was restored for the champions, with a quarter of the game to go.
With 15 minutes to go, a dazed Pollard came off. Could Patrick Lambie do something special in a dramatic cameo? He grabbed three points back with 12 minutes left to guarantee a thrilling finale at 18-20.
Lambie might have been able to do more, but the Bok lineout failed, an ultimately so did the team.
Two tries for the All Blacks ultimately proved too much for the Springboks.
Springboks: Penalties: Handre Pollard (5); Patrick Lambie.
All Blacks: Tries: Jerome Kaino, Beaudon Barrett. Conversions: Dan Carter (2). Penalties: Carter (2)
SOUTH AFRICA (12) 18
NEW ZEALAND (7) 20
By Mike Greenaway at Twickenham
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