Wales missed out on a first World Cup final in gut-wrenching fashion as Handre Pollard’s 76th-minute penalty snatched victory for South Africa in a gripping semi-final to set up a showdown against England.
The first half was a war of attrition, three Pollard penalties giving the Springboks a 9-6 lead as they sought to overpower Wales up front and kick them into submission.
Dan Biggar dragged Wales level with a penalty early in the second half, but then Damian de Allende burst through the Welsh defensive line to put South Africa 16-9 ahead.
Wales sensed they had to go for broke and, after boldly opting for a scrum rather than a penalty in front of the posts against their hulking opponents, they worked the ball wide for Josh Adams to dive over for a converted try that made it 16-16.
That set up a captivating final 10 minutes in which Wales drove forward in desperate search of the score that would keep alive their hopes of ending Warren Gatland’s reign with the ultimate prize in rugby.
But they were denied as Pollard struck a fourth and match-winning penalty in the 76th minute.
While South Africa can look forward to a final against England here in Yokohama next Saturday, Gatland’s final game as Wales head coach will be the third-place play-off against his native New Zealand in Tokyo on Friday.
More World Cup heartache for Wales
Heartache has stalked Wales at recent World Cups – Sam Warburton’s red card in an agonizing 2011 semi-final loss to France, and then an injury-ravaged side’s late defeat by South Africa in 2015’s quarter-final.
This was another painful chapter to add to their story – with more than a passing resemblance to that match against the Springboks four years ago – and yet it was so close to being a different story.
Although this side contained four players from the 2011 semi-final and largely the same coaching staff, this was not a Wales team weighed down by history.
In head coach Gatland and captain Alun Wyn Jones, they had leaders who had experienced the pain of those previous defeats but were not consumed by it.
Even as injuries began to mount again in Japan – key players Liam Williams and Josh Navidi before this match, Tomas Francis and George North during it – Gatland and Jones were confident, relishing their tag of underdogs against South Africa, whom they had beaten in their past four meetings.
However, this was a resurgent Springboks side on the prowl for a third World Cup.
The respect was mutual during a cautious start in which both sides kicked constantly, eager not to make the first mistake.
When the errors did come, they were punished by the goal-kicking of Pollard and Biggar respectively, South Africa nudging themselves narrowly ahead.
This was the kind of tight contest the Springboks wanted, and Wales struggled to impose themselves on a game in which the ball seemed to be eternally airborne or moving slowly at the bottom of a ruck.
Yet despite their struggles to attack with any cohesion, Wales dug in to keep their deficit down to 9-6 at half-time.
Wales: Halfpenny; North, J Davies, Parkes, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; Wyn Jones, Owens, Francis, Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Wainwright, Tipuric, Moriarty.
Replacements: Watkin for North (39), Patchell for Biggar (57), T. Williams for G. Davies (47), Carre for W. Jones (54), Lewis for Francis (35), Beard for Ball (59), Shingler for Wainwright (68). Not Used: Dee.
South Africa: Le Roux; Nkosi, Am, De Allende, Mapimpi; Pollard, De Klerk; Mtawarira, Mbonambi, Malherbe, Etzebeth, De Jager, Kolisi (capt), Du Toit, Vermeulen.
Replacements: Steyn for le Roux (68), Marx for Mtawarira (47), Kitshoff for Mbonambi (47), Koch for Malherbe (47), Snyman for Etzebeth (52), Mostert for De Jager (57), Louw for Kolisi (68). Not Used: H. Jantjies.