One thump of the ball. One dagger through English hearts. This was the cruellest way for it to end, with Handre Pollard’s 78th minute penalty robbing England of one of their biggest upsets in history.
They were so close. The Springboks were almost dead. They were subjected to an hour of tactical t orture that almost left them ready for the old taxidermy shop down in the 3rd arrondissement.
This England team have not got pulses racing in recent weeks, but last night they brought an intensity that sent the beats per minute of 78,000 inside the Stade de France through the roof. Owen Farrell kicked the sweetest 40-metre drop goal of his life.
It was a proud, defiant performance that almost saw them through to the most unlikely of finals. Instead, thanks to Pollard’s kick that sent his coaching box into tears, their dream is over.
A generation of players will bow out. This was their final shot in the dance. The last tango in Paris. Earlier in the day there was an African art fair down in Carreau du Temple. It was full of young, trendy Parisians who came to see its modern pieces from Tunisia down to Cape Point. There were a few Springbok fans there too, taking in the stories of townships and uprisings, poverty and corruption.
The winning kick from South Africa’s Handre Pollard who was subbed on early in the first half
Owen Farrell of England looks dejected after the full-time whistle in the World Cup semi-final
These are the stories of hardship that, four years ago, gave the Springboks their purpose. The special sauce that gave them an emotional level that England could not match. Steve Borthwick has had a few weeks in the kitchen now to concoct his own recipe. He used the classic ingredients of a siege mentality. He demystified the opposition and created a game plan that made them look like mortals.
For the first 15 minutes, England executed their plan to perfection. This competition has spanned seasons. It opened up here on a balmy 30C evening but last night was one for umbrellas and winter coats.
The rain poured and the wind swirled and it provided the perfect conditions for England to cause chaos by booting the ball into the skies. The ball swirled around and England won all four of the first aerial contests. Elliot Daly, Freddie Steward and Jonny May dominated the air, hustling Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse.
It took just three minutes for Owen Farrell to kick the opening points off the back of Alex Mitchell’s box kick. The mood was dark. The party atmosphere was no more and it felt like a cauldron of anger after France’s early exit. French jerseys were reduced by 30 per cent in the sports shops around town.
The jeers for referee Ben O’Keefe — who took charge during France’s defeat — were piercing and England tapped into the bristling fury. Farrell wanted to fight everyone — including O’Keefe — and George Martin’s shoulders looked like they were made of granite.
The Springboks were rattled. ‘Hit him, Cuz! Hit him, he’s not passing!’ Farrell barked at Curry in defence as they dominated the collisions.
Bongi Mbonambi was spooked by the movement of England’s lineout jumpers as his throws went off at angles. Maro Itoje was the arch irritant and Courtney Lawes battled for every scrap on the floor. Before they knew it, England were six points up.
Dan Cole and Joe Marler, the old dog props, drew on every ounce of experience at the scrum. They were two of 13 English players who featured in the 2019 World Cup final and this was their chance to unleash four years of hurt. They had been written off and Borthwick made sure they knew about it, giving them a free shot at revenge.
‘A generation of players will bow out. This was their final shot in the dance’
‘Heartbreak for the men in white. So close to the perfect routine, yet so painfully far’
They demolished three driving mauls in a row, but Farrell stepped over the edge and was marched back 10 for not releasing the ball, giving Libbok a shot to score his side’s first points. Under pressure from England’s kick chase, Willemse threw a loose pass that was swept up by Lawes and once again Farrell called for the kicking tee for another three pointer.
Even Daly muscled in, smashing Duane Vermeulen. The South African coaching staff saw the game getting away from them and made the huge call to replace Libbok with Pollard after just 32 minutes. The No 10 came on a dished out new instructions to all his game players. He kicked a penalty almost straight away but it was cancelled out by Farrell, as England went into the changing rooms at half time leading 12-6, full of belief.
They put South Africa under immediate pressure from the start of the second half, forcing the Springboks to unload their bench early. Faf de Klerk, Willie Le Roux and RG Snyman were sent on almost immediately. Eben Etzebeth spent his night in Itoje’s shadow. Ox Nche was next on; the Bomb Squad unloaded in dribs and drabs.
England unloaded their own ammunition through Ellis Genge, Ollie Chessum and Danny Care. Moments after Le Roux threatened to score the first time, Enfland’s replaements combined to provide the platform for Farell to kick a massive drop goal. For the first time, they were two scores ahead. Breathing space in the midst of a breathless night.
Farrell kicked the ball behind the defensive line and made Kurt-Lee Arendse’s night a misery. They kept the Springboks out of their 22 throughout the second half until the 70th minute. Nche won a scrum penalty and Pollard kicked a massive touch finder, with Snyman scoring from the lineout.
With 77 minutes on the clock, Nche won another penalty from the scrum. It was Pollard’s moment. Heartbreak for the men in white. Their last night at the disco. So close to the perfect routine, yet so painfully far.