South Africa have their semi-final because, finally, the Welsh injuries counted. Not because of the lost skills, more the lost collective nous. Wales paid the penalty for playing too much of the game in their own territory and for taking too long to work out Wayne Barnes, the referee.
Barnes is not a radical, he’s just accurate – and if you’re playing under him it’s your responsibility to get to terms with him. By the time Wales had got their heads around the way the breakdown was being refereed, they had conceded 12 points and, ultimately, that hurt them as much as the Fourie du Preez try less than five minutes from time.
It was only then that South Africa looked comfortable and it’s hard to see their risk-averse gameplan taking them much further.
The story of the game was that, for 40 minutes, the sides cancelled each other out, with the Wales defence set up as brilliantly as ever. Shaun Edwards has changed things since those days at Wasps when the blitz won them a couple of Heineken Cups. Now it’s more subtle; varied to suit the occasion. At half-time against Australia it looked to have Wales within a whisker of taking control. Against South Africa, it was enough to frustrate the simple Springbok game plan, which amounted to Willie le Roux, Handre Pollard and Du Preez hoofing the ball towards the heavens for JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana to chase.
There was the occasional outbreak of interplay between Pollard and Pietersen in midfield, but South Africa were allowed to live off the penalties that Wales left behind at the breakdown. Not that the Springboks were without their sins in Barnes’s eyes and my guess is that the vast majority of penalties in the first half sprung from the tackle area.
Against that, South Africa couldn’t keep the ball, either because of their own mistakes or because of the skills of Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Lydiate and, occasionally, Gethin Jenkins in either stopping speedy ball or winning the turnovers.
Dan Biggar’s star continued to rise, the fly-half not only keeping Wales in the game by kicking his own penalties, but by showing the courage to chase his own up-and-under, draw three defenders and then put Gareth Davies in. The scrum-half has the happy knack of scoring tries, but when pressure came in the second half it was the loss of experience at nine, 13 and 15 that took its toll.
Stereotypically, Wales don’t usually hang around in their own territory. Once Mike Phillips would get his hands on the ball, the scrum-half was more than likely to box-kick it beyond halfway. Or Leigh Halfpenny would field a hopeful punt ahead, make as many yards as possible and belt the ball further down field, making the opposition work for their territory. Wales weren’t scared to keep the ball in play because they believed in their fitness levels.
This time, when the Springboks applied the heat in the second half, they seemed to target Gareth Anscombe, who doesn’t have the most punishing kick in the world. Either he or Davies would shovel the ball back, leave it to someone else to get play upfield, although it probably wasn’t going to be beyond halfway. That’s where the problem lay.
Sides such as South Africa may not have much subtlety about them, but they do know how to apply their weight and if defenders dither in their own half it will inevitably result in giving up points.
In a 10-minute period of pressure early in the second half, the Edwards defence was good enough to see off the challenge. Big men up the middle were predictable targets and, when Pollard attempted to go wider, there were red jerseys in his face, turning the fly-half back inside.
Needing to get something from Bok labours, Pollard satisfied himself with a drop goal, but when Heyneke Meyer and Warren Gatland turned to their benches it was the South African who found he had the greater reserves in depth.
South Africa are a sledgehammer side and, when teams stand up to them, they can appear to be short on alternatives, as the Welsh defence proved. Wales were more than happy to make their tackles, but ultimately it was where they made those tackles that hurt them.
Yet another Welsh turnover led to a South Africa scrum, a big Springboks shove got a slight wheel on, to open up the blindside, Duane Vermeulen off-loaded to Du Preez, Alex Cuthbert chose to step in and even 33-year-old legs had enough space and time.