Leigh Halfpenny disabused any notion of solidarity with Willie le Roux when he caught his opposite number in mid-air after half an hour of Sunday’s attritional Rugby World Cup semi-final in Yokohama.
Wales and South Africa’s fullbacks had an abundance of work to get through in swirling conditions as the opening 40 minutes produced 40 kicks from hand.
After the thundering intensity and brilliance of England’s Saturday dethroning of New Zealand, this felt like a different sport at times. Opposition 22s were not usually places to set up camp but visit fleetingly.
This clash of two brutally physical packs meant such an encounter was always on the cards, placing huge onus on a pair of fly-halves whose route to a defining match has been nowhere near as smooth as they would have hoped four years ago.
When South Africa beat Wales 23-19 in the 2015 quarter-final at Twickenham in an eminently more watchable affair, a 21-year-old Handre Pollard landed five penalties and a drop goal.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 27, 2019
A career on the line
Already named IRB Junior Player of the Year for 2014, Pollard’s cool-headedness and nerveless accuracy had him marked out for greatness. However, a shoulder injury sustained playing club rugby in Japan set off a career-threatening chain of events.
He decided to try to nurse the problem through the 2016 Super Rugby season with the Bulls, but that plan was shelved after he suffered a snapped anterior cruciate ligament during training.
Pragmatically, Pollard elected to have surgery to fix his shoulder while incapacitated, only to contract an infection in hospital.
“It got to the point where the doctors raised the subject of amputating my arm, although it wasn’t an immediate option,” he told The Guardian. “I spent six weeks in hospital pumped full of antibiotics about seven hours a day.”
The treatment worked and an absence from the international stage of almost two years ended against New Zealand in North Shore. Pollard was a replacement in a 57-0 mauling at the hands of the All Blacks, yet he was playing with the perspective that things could have been so much worse.
It helps to know a World Cup semi-final is at once much more than a game of rugby but still only a game of rugby. South Africa anticipated a tight contest and bet on Pollard’s goal-kicking. He was perfect in a game where they were never behind.
— Springboks (@Springboks) October 27, 2019
A career forever questioned
The responsibility of leading the catch-up operation fell to Dan Biggar, who kicked 14 points to Pollard’s 18 in that Twickenham meeting.
Acclaim has rarely arrived so easily for Biggar as it does for his counterpart, though. His 11-year international career has been a fight for approval against celebrated compatriots, while measuring up uncomfortably to the aesthetic demands of a Welsh 10.
From competing against James Hook and Rhys Priestland during his early years to recent jousts with Gareth Anscombe, Biggar has been a loyal servant to his country, always striving to belong.
When an injury to Halfpenny four years ago thrust kicking duties upon him, many doubted Biggar’s chops for the task. His 23 points sent England on the way to heartbreak at their own party.
Anscombe being ruled out of this competition persuaded Wales great JJ Williams to declare his country could not win a World Cup with Biggar at fly-half.
“I’ve had it my whole career,” Biggar told WalesOnline. “There could be another ex-player calling for someone from Penclawdd to play number 10 next week! It’s one of those things.”
There was similar defiance in each swipe of the boot that took Wales from 3-0, 6-3 and 9-3 behind to parity early in the second period.
— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) October 27, 2019
Glory and despair
Unfortunately for Biggar, the Springboks had decided to target him at the gain line and he missed Damian de Allende as the South Africa skipper burst through for a game-breaking try.
It was his last involvement, as Rhys Patchell came on in his place – the words of Williams and others perhaps unfairly pounding in Biggar’s ears.
Josh Adams went over to level matters once again after a monumental Wales effort by the South Africa line, but the glory would be Pollard’s.
Wales brought a maul to ground right in front of referee Jerome Garces and, after a frivolous drop goal attempt, Pollard took it back to the tee.
Ice cold as usual, he bisected the posts with a certain inevitability. Of course, his presence on such a stage was anything but inevitable when faced with the consuming darkness of that hospital bed.
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