Wales' World Cup heartbreak means no final triumph for Warren Gatland

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer

Go out at this stage of a World Cup and you don't want to be haunted. You want to leave it all behind knowing you gave everything that you had and that you carry no regret in your wake.

Wales came so close to a World Cup final by expending every possible effort. There will be pain all the same because the happy ending was never out of reach.

Four years of scheming, of training, of dreaming, and it came down to three points. Seventy-five minutes of hanging on against a South Africa team with the power and creativity of a steam-roller, and then in just over 60 seconds going from deep in opposition territory to a maul in their own and a penalty that took it away for a final time.

It's the little hidden vignettes that sometimes tell the most in these frenetic late moments. As the Springboks burned away the remaining time after Handre Pollard's decisive penalty with scrum-resets and shoves, Wales hooker Ken Owens, subbed off just seven minutes earlier, was unable to watch.

The 70,000 in the stadium all focused on that corner of the Welsh 22 where Faf de Klerk was spinning the ball nonchalantly on his right index finger, waiting for the signal from referee Jerome Garces, waiting a little longer still, grinning his scrum-half's grin.

Owens with his back to it, somewhere off to the side of the Welsh replacements bench, staring up at the dark Yokohama sky beyond the floodlights, the past catching up with him, the future cut short.

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There are unlikely be any further World Cup tilts for the thirtysomethings in this Welsh squad - for Owens, and Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar and Hadleigh Parkes, for Justin Tipuric and most of all Alun Wyn Jones.

There will be no final triumph for Warren Gatland, after 12 years in which he transformed the sporadic genius of the national team into a hard-nosed unit of consistent menace.

From there comes inevitable remorse and from the echoes of other near-misses through the coach's era of excellence come others.

Eight years ago in Auckland, when Wales lost their last World Cup semi-final by a single point, there was the Sam Warburton red card, the Stephen Jones conversion that just slipped by, the late Leigh Halfpenny penalty that just fell short.

Here it was the long-range Rhys Patchell drop-goal that sliced wide of the posts, the inability to work better field position for another, the injuries that had cut an already depleted squad to the bone.

George North
George North's first-half injury was a big blow to Wales

At kick-off two of the foldaway plastic chairs that made up the bench were taken up by Liam Williams, on silver crutches and in a grey moon-boot, and Josh Navidi, sitting stiffly with his damaged hamstring.

By half-time they had Tomas Francis on their left, clutching his left wrist, and George North in grey tracksuit bottoms after his own hamstring had gone. You could almost see the ghosts of those who hadn't even made it that far - Talupe Faletau, Cory Hill, Gareth Anscombe.

If that kicked in memories of defeat by the Springboks at the quarter-final stage four years ago, the ability to stay in a match against the odds was also there, as so often in Gatland's reign.

Never was it pretty. This was a horrible game, as ugly and enervating as the first semi-final on Saturday had been thrilling.

If the Springboks, so full of sweet passion at the anthem, were almost joyless for the remainder - kicking away their first eight pieces of possession, showing so little attacking ambition that it was like watching a different sport to the night before - then Wales were too often sucked into the same negative spiral.

They kicked 39 times from hand, the most they have done in a World Cup match in 28 years, and in the first half went long or inaccurate too many times. They lost 15 turnovers and conceded too many penalties in too often the wrong place as South Africa's strength at the breakdown began to tell.

But they were still in it at the death, just as they had managed to be against a far more cavalier French side in the quarter-final a week ago, despite all those injuries, despite shipping a try to Damian de Allende that owed as much to fractured defence as attacking excellence.

That has always been the Gatland way. Hold off the odds. Keep the belief. Fight your way back in, inch by inch.

Faf de Klerk kicks
Faf de Klerk orchestrated his side's victory from scrum-half

It will hurt more because this appears to be such a limited Springbok team.

You play to your strengths in sport and you fall back on your own rich sporting culture. No-one complains when Italy's football team put together a defensive masterclass, or when India spin visiting Test cricket teams to death.

This is a South Africa plugged straight into its muscular traditions by Rassie Erasmus, a coach who was raised on them. A relentless set-piece, a defence that stops you dead. Big runners going straight up the middle, mauls off the line-out, half-backs who kick and kick and then kick some more.

They were never going to slice Wales into delicate slices. Smash it, hoist it, smash it. When you know what is coming it should make it easier to combat. Maybe Patchell's more creative threat was utilised too late.

Jonathan Davies and Warren Gatland
Jonathan Davies and Warren Gatland walk off at the end of the match

At the end, the last regrets were around Gatland, the third of the great triumvirate of New Zealander coaches to take charge of Wales and the most successful by far.

Both Graham Henry and Steve Hansen went on to lift the World Cup. Gatland will have to wait but his legacy is greater all the same.

Teams like to talk about enhancing the jersey they wear. When Gatland began Wales had just been bundled out of the 2007 World Cup by Fiji. His initial aim was simply to get the respect of England and France.

Three Grand Slams, two World Cup semi-finals and a number one world ranking, however brief the last of those may have been, stand testament to a target that was achieved and then long overshot.

Sunday night in Yokohama was about what ifs. It should also be about what was. A huge game lost by a tiny margin, a long reign that made such heartbreak conceivable.

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