“The more it rains, the more the silver ferns will grow,” quipped a New Zealand rugby fan as he looked to the darkening skies, referring to his country’s national sporting emblem.
“The more ferns that grow, the more for the Springboks to eat,” growled back a nearby South African on the packed train to Twickenham Stadium ahead of Saturday’s opening World Cup semifinal.
The battle lines had been drawn long before two of the world’s most powerful teams took to the pitch at the home of English rugby.
Coach Heyneke Meyer had talked up the All Blacks in midweek as the “best of all time” while counterpart Steve Hansen said the South African players “would try to rip our guys’ heads off.”
Neither were far off the mark as New Zealand took a step closer to making World Cup history, edging a titanic struggle.
The All Blacks, seeking to become the first team to retain the title, and the first to win it three times, triumphed 20-18 in increasingly treacherous conditions.
The gray English weather went from autumn drizzle to bitter winter rain as the two sides slugged it out, showing that southern hemisphere nations know how to “do physical” as much as their typically more dour northern rivals.
“The Rugby Championship has been given a few smacks up this way recently, but we’ve shown tonight that it’s a very physical competition,” Hansen told reporters after the match.
“And that if you haven’t got physicality, you can’t play.”
Hansen also made a point of praising two-time world champion South Africa, which battled back into the tournament after a shock early loss to Japan.
“It was always going to be close — they’re a great side and they showed that again today,” he said. “I was really proud of our guys, they kept their composure.”
Meyer, however, took no consolation in the closeness of his side’s defeat.
“I thought we had a perfect first half, executed well, our discipline was 100% intact and built scoreboard pressure,” Meyer said. “I don’t think we adapted well to the rainy conditions. We made some mistakes and that was the difference between winning and losing.
“We had a chance and we didn’t take it. We should have been in the final, and I will never settle for second.”
The All Blacks couldn’t repeat the silky skills displayed in thrashing France 62-13 in the quarterfinals, but dominated possession and battered the South African defense for long periods — reflected in the Boks’ tackle count of 116-84 and New Zealand making 398 total meters with the ball compared to just 146.
The Kiwis ran in two tries to none, but paid for ill-discipline as South Africa profited from a 13-6 penalty count and led 12-7 at halftime thanks to four kicks by Handre Pollard.
Jerome Kaino crossed in the corner in the sixth minute of the game after a mighty fend on South Africa lock Lodewyk de Jager, but the flanker was sin-binned for deliberate offside play just before the halftime break.
However, that did not prove too costly, as Dan Carter landed a rare drop-goal in the 46th minute to reduce the deficit to 12-10. Soon after, Kaino returned — and replacement winger Beauden Barret dived over the try line out wide on the left, having been put in space by center Ma’a Nonu.
Carter converted, then South Africa also went down to 14 men when wing Bryan Habana was yellow-carded.
It was the second ill-advised action by Habana, who minutes earlier was penalized for needlessly shoving Nehe Milner-Skudder in the back when they were chasing the loose ball.
Habana eyes Lomu record
He will have one more chance to take the outright World Cup try-scoring record from former New Zealand star Jonah Lomu if he is selected for Friday’s third and fourth place playoff against the loser of Sunday’s Australia-Argentina semifinal.
“Give the All Blacks credit — we had a few discipline issues and with a man down to restrict us from scoring, they showed their status as the number one side in the world,” Habana said.
Habana never looked like getting his 16th career score at the tournament as the Boks focused on a tight strategy, tackling hard and kicking for position.
Pollard made it 17-15 but Carter extended his record international points tally to 1,579 with a penalty of his own on the hour.
Carter, playing at his fourth and final World Cup before joining French club racing Metro, is now New Zealand’s highest scorer at the tournament on 172 — edging two points past Grant Fox’s previous milestone.
The 33-year-old also became the first non-Englishman to score 100 points at Twickenham.
Pollard went off injured soon after but his replacement Patrick Lambie landed a superb kick to make it a two-point game and set up a tense final 10 minutes, as the rain got heavier and the play more desperate.
The closeness of the final score highlighted key moments in the first half — Carter being allowed to retake his conversion of Kaino’s try after Habana rushed him too early, then hitting the post with a penalty, and Springboks winger J.P. Pietersen being called back by the referee when he seemed set to score a breakaway intercept try.
Hansen hailed the contribution of Richie McCaw, who made a record 13th World Cup appearance as captain. The flanker took his team out early for the second half
“We’ve probably got the greatest skipper and greatest player the All Blacks — and maybe the world — has had,” he said.
“As a young captain in 2007 (when New Zealand lost in the quarterfinals) he was criticised a lot, and I know that hurt him.
“But he’s grown — we’ve grown a leadership group that has a massive amount of self-belief.”