Rugby World Cup: Springboks breathe sigh of relief after denying devastated England semi-final upset

South Africa were relieved to emerge with the narrowest of victories over England in Sunday's Rugby World Cup semi-final, bemoaning an error-filled performance and admitting their unfancied opponents outplayed them for large parts of a nail-biting contest.

Skipper Siya Kolisi and coach Jacques Nienaber said the defending champions had to dig deep for their come-from-behind 16-15 victory at the Stade de France to book their place in next weekend's final against the All Blacks.

"It was ugly today, really ugly, but all the hard work we have put in paid off and that is what champions are made of," said Kolisi amid the celebrations at the end.

"All credit to England, they were written off but they came together to show who they are. But we found a way, so well done to the boys, and we are really proud of the fight that we showed, especially the boys who came off the bench."

First-five Handre Pollard, who was brought on early in the first half for Mannie Libbok as South Africa struggled in the early stages, kicked over a long-range kick to win the game for the Springboks.

Pollard, who kicked South Africa to the title at the last World Cup in Japan, was left out of the original 33-man squad after failing to prove his fitness.

Willie Le Roux celebrates the Springboks win.
Willie Le Roux celebrates the Springboks win. Photo credit: Getty Images

But hooker Malcolm Marx's injury allowed the Springboks to draft him in, gambling on his recovery and admitting concern over the kicking of his replacement Manie Libbok.

In the semi-final, with Libbok struggling with his kicking, coach Jacques Nienaber took a calculated risk and brought him on after 31 minutes.

"It was amazing, we won the scrum penalty for the opportunity and credit to the forwards for that. And then those are the moments that you live for as a player," said Pollard of his 48-metre effort to seal success.

"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."

"We needed some energy and that's why we decided to bring on the bench early," explained Nienaber.

"We are fortunate that there's not a lot of difference between the guys who started and those on the bench."

But he was effusive in praise of England, who belied their status as underdogs and will feel they missed a massive opportunity for an upset win.

"Credit to England, I thought they were outstanding on the night and they really had us under a lot of pressure. It really took something special for us to unlock their defence, to get a try near the end and us back in the game."

Handre Pollard lines up his game-winning penalty.
Handre Pollard lines up his game-winning penalty. Photo credit: Getty Images

Nienaber held his head in his hands in relief at the final whistle in the coach's box while his assistant celebrated around him.

"Like in the previous World Cup, the semi-final is always going to be tight and it was always going to take something special to unlock it," he added.

Meanwhile, England were left distraught after a tactical masterclass and a lion-hearted display left them millimetres short of the final.

"We came here with a plan to win the game, and we came short - not far short but short, and we are desperately disappointed," England coach Steve Borthwick said.

"The players should be incredibly proud. It was a tough test match tonight - that was a proper test match and millions who watched around the world will have seen that was an intense encounter and we came out just the wrong side.

"The players should be very proud of what they have done and continue to do as a representative of the team."

Nobody had given the 2003 champions a sniff of a chance here - their form coming into the tournament had been dire - but they kicked and squeezed the champions to within an inch of their lives, ceding the lead with less than three minutes on the clock.

In the end, it took a monster 48m Handre Pollard penalty in the swirling wind and rain, conditions which had suited the English throughout, to provide the dagger blow and end English dreams.

"The contest was always going to be a good one, we always knew that," England captain, and scorer of all their 15 points, Owen Farrell said.

"I thought the fight that we showed throughout - we thought we might have done enough to win, but congratulations to them. I felt like we were playing well, playing to our plan and showing what we were capable of and to do that on a stage like that in a semi-final is what we wanted to do.

"We're disappointed but incredibly proud. It's not all gone our way but to build up to a performance today and come just short to a great team like South Africa... we're disappointed but incredibly proud."


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