YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Losing Wales coach Warren Gatland said his team can leave Japan with heads held high after trying everything they could to break the South African stranglehold during Sunday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final.
In a game full of kick and chase, South Africa always seemed to be on top, though they needed a Handre Pollard penalty four minutes from time to finally kill off Wales’s spirited challenge and edge the game 19-16.
“There wasn’t a lot of flowing rugby played, we tried to move the ball a bit in the first half but then it became an arm wrestle,” Gatland said.
“We stayed in there and, with 76 minutes on the clock, it was 16-all. We had a bit of momentum and were significantly in their half but then there was a big turnover and they got the penalty from a lineout drive.”
After a first half without a single offload from either side, Gatland tried to inject some energy into his side with early changes to his halfbacks as he threw on Tomos Williams and Rhys Patchell.
And the team showed fantastic commitment to hammer at the Springbok line before sending Josh Adams over in the corner, which, after a brilliant conversion by Leigh Halfpenny, levelled the scores.
“In the first half we did shift it a few times and got to the edges,” he said. “In the second half they did a good job of not allowing us to get quick ball and it was obvious we needed to try to speed things up - that’s why we put Tomos on, to try to change that, and we did try to be a bit more proactive.
“I thought the longer it went on we would get a chance but all the games against them over the past six years have been tight, so congratulations, they came out on top tonight.
“But I am hugely proud... we punched massively above our weight in terms of playing numbers in Wales, we gave 100 percent tonight and we can hold our heads high and leave Japan with a lot of respect.
“My first game in charge was against England and the dream was to beat them in the last - but it’s not to be.”
Gatland will step down after 12 years following Friday’s third-place playoff against his native New Zealand and he said he would try to muster a competitive side from his injury-ravaged squad.
“A third-place playoff is a tough game to play but we have to give it respect,” he said. “For my last game in charge of Wales to be against the All Blacks, a team I haven’t beaten with Wales, well it’s exciting for me, with me going back to coach the Waikato Chiefs.
“Then I go back to the (British and Irish) Lions (for the 2021 tour) to try to get some revenge on South Africa. We weren’t able to do it tonight but maybe in a couple of years we will.”
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Tony Lawrence