|England: (12) 15|
|Pen: Farrell 4 Drop goal: Farrell|
|South Africa: (6) 16|
|Try: Snyman Con: Pollard Pen: Libbok, Pollard 2|
England fell agonisingly short of a supreme upset and a fifth Rugby World Cup final as South Africa came on strong to snatch victory in Paris.
England were canny and committed in the first half, raining down kicks into the South Africa backfield, forcing a steady supply of penalties.
Owen Farrell converted four to send his side into the break with a 12-6 lead.
The Springboks chopped and changed their line-up after the break, but a Farrell drop-goal edged England further clear and to the brink of a seismic shock.
However, an RG Snyman try 10 minutes from time cut the underdogs’ lead to 15-13 before the Boks’ scrum power earned Handre Pollard the match-winning penalty in the 77th minute.
It was a brutal ending for an England team who had led from the third minute until three minutes from time.
White shirts slumped to the sodden Stade de France turf, while elsewhere the tension and physicality of the contest spilled over with groups of players confronting each other.
It was characteristic of an England side who never took a step back and took the fight to their fancied opposition.
The performance was also vindication for coach Steve Borthwick, who turned Leicester from relegation candidates to Premiership champions in 18 months and has produced another spectacular salvage job to guide England within a whisker of a final.
After beating hosts France by a similarly small margin on the same stage last weekend, South Africa will return to take on New Zealand in the showpiece match with both sides chasing a record fourth title.
England will face Argentina in the third-place play-off on Friday.
England’s plan flounders in Paris rain
England had been outfoxed and outmuscled by the Springboks in the last Rugby World Cup final and at Twickenham last autumn, but they started like the favourites, setting about South Africa with confidence and a clear plan.
Joe Marchant nearly got hold of Farrell’s opening drop-out after England split their forward chase to keep the Boks guessing.
Elliot Daly soared over Kurt-Lee Arendse to tap back an Alex Mitchell box-kick, Courtney Lawes snaffled loose ball on the floor and Freddie Steward, back in the starting line-up for the purpose, gobbled up anything kicked into England’s own backfield.
South Africa looked disconcerted by England’s barrage.
Referee Ben O’Keeffe, under the microscope after his controversial handling of the Boks’ last-eight win over France, pinged Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Siya Kolisi in quick succession.
Farrell kicked penalties from both for a 6-0 lead inside 10 minutes.
South Africa tried to fall back on their staples: one-out runners, driven line-out, scrum pressure and low-risk percentages. But England denied them a toehold.
A Springbok rolling maul was sent into tailspin. George Martin, in for his physicality, forced a knock-on from Franco Mostert with a juddering hit.
Manie Libbok nibbled three points back for South Africa, but after full-back Damian Willemse had slung a loose pass to put his team under pressure, Farrell restored the six-point difference from the tee.
Trailing 9-3 with 32 minutes gone and mistakes littering their play, South Africa swapped out Libbok at fly-half in favour of Pollard.
The momentum switch was slow coming though. England, bristling with belief, headed down the tunnel 12-6 up – the same interval lead South Africa had enjoyed in Yokohama four years ago – after another exchange of penalties.
South Africa’s replacements helped them reel in the hosts a week ago and they continuted to empty their bench, searching for a solution.
Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux and Snyman were introduced inside six minutes of the restart, with the totemic Eben Etzebeth among those to give way.
England’s own replacements had the bigger impact initially though. Ellis Genge thundered into contact to set up a perfect platform for Farrell to drop a goal to move his side 15-6 clear and more than a converted score out of reach after 53 minutes.
England’s fans, who seemed outnumbered around the stadium before kick-off, were suddenly outsinging the champions’ support, with Swing Low sweeping the stands.
Ultimately, though, it was Springbok fans who cheered last and loudest.
South Africa second row Snyman barged over close to the posts to slash England’s lead to two points and his team’s strength in depth ultimately wrestled a nerve-shredding finale their way.
Replacement props Ox Nche and Vincent Koch milked the set-piece for a penalty and Pollard, as in 2019, was rock-steady off the tee.
‘Gutted we don’t have a crack at the big one’
England captain Owen Farrell on BBC Radio 5 Live: “I am unbelievably proud of this group and what they have done over this past few months together.
“It has not all gone our way as everybody knows, we have had everything thrown at us – it has been a rollercoaster.
“I’m glad about where we have built to, but gutted we don’t have a crack at the big one next week. I am massively proud of this group and I hope everyone back home is as well.
“We came up with a plan during the week and the weather conditions played a part in it. We started the game really well, we shocked them at times and they made a few changes to change what they were doing.
“But credit to them fighting their way back into it and finding a way to win at the end.”
‘It was really ugly but that is what champions are made of’
South African captain Siya Kolisi: “It’s honestly all the hard work we have put in which came off. It was really ugly but that is what champions are made of.
“Credit to England, they have worked hard. They were written off before the World Cup but have pulled themselves together and shown who they are.
“They are not a team you take lightly, all credit to them for being in the semi-final. To my team as well, it was ugly like it was last week but we found a way to fight back.
“I am really proud of the fight we showed, especially the guys who came off the bench once again.”
‘England will be inconsolable for a long time’
England’s 2003 World Cup winner Matt Dawson on BBC Radio 5 Live: “Talk about fine margins and opportunities. One opportunity from South Africa and they have taken the spoils, they should be applauded for it.
“England were magnificent. They will be inconsolable for a long time – they have given everything. South Africa had no idea what they were doing until they just caught a tiny bit of a spark in that scrummage and it gave them some momentum.”
‘South Africa found a chink in the armour’
Former South Africa captain Bobby Skinstad on BBC Radio 5 Live: “The scrum was everything. South Africa clawed their way back, they got back to their feet gently and close to a 50-yard penalty from Handre Pollard – a match-winning penalty.
“Hats off to England but part of what we watch in this game of rugby is that winners find ways to win. South Africa found a chink in the armour and exploited it.”
England: Steward; May, Marchant, Tuilagi, Daly; Farrell (capt), Mitchell; Marler, George, Cole, Itoje, Martin, Lawes, Curry, Earl.
Replacements: Care for Mitchell (53), Genge for Marler (53), Chessum for Martin (53), Sinckler for Cole (56), Vunipola for Curry (69), Lawrence for Tuilagi (74), Ford for May (78). Not Used: Dan.
South Africa: Willemse; Arendse, Kriel, De Allende, Kolbe; Libbok, Reinach; Kitshoff, Mbonambi, Malherbe, Etzebeth, Mostert, Kolisi (capt), Du Toit, Vermeulen.
Replacements: Pollard for Libbok (32), De Klerk for Reinach (43), Le Roux for Willemse (44), Snyman for Etzebeth (46), Nche for Kitshoff (49), Smith for Kolisi (51), Fourie for Vermeulen (51), Koch for Malherbe (56).
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistants: Mathieu Raynal (France) and Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)