From the heroics of 1995 to double heartbreak at Twickenham, some of the highest and lowest moments in Springbok history have come at the semifinal stage of various World Cup tournaments.
South Africa won their first and third World Cup semifinals, losing their second and fourth. Given that the fifth is approaching, perhaps the fact that we are back in odd numbers is a good omen for Rassie Erasmus’ men.
Both of the semifinals the Boks won led to them being crowned world champions. Meanwhile, their semi defeats were both followed up by third-place playoff wins.
1995: South Africa 19-15 France (Kings Park, Durban, South Africa)
The Springboks held on in the rain and wind of Durban to secure their spot in the final of their first-ever World Cup. It may have been a home game for South Africa, but they just as much as their visitors struggled with the conditions.
Kick-off was delayed for an hour due to the weather and the match was nearly cancelled. This would have seen France progress to the final to face New Zealand due to their disciplinary record having trumped that of the Springboks.
Eventually, the match kicked off and South Africa piled pressure on Les Bleus in the early stages. However, they struggled to convert their dominance into points. Joel Stransky landed an early penalty, but missed a couple more with the wind making life almost impossible for the flyhalf.
The Springboks eventually forced their way over the try-line in the 26th minute, with Ruben Kruger powering over from close range with the help of his fellow forwards.
France began to find their feet as the half wore on and put the Springboks under pressure shortly before the break. Two Thierry Lacroix penalties pulled the score back from 10-0 to make it 10-6 at half-time.
Stransky popped over a crucial penalty shortly after the break only for Lacroix to respond in kind. The pair exchanged penalties again before the hour mark, but then Lacroix missed a crucial kick in the 65th minute with the score at 16-12, the wind playing its part yet again.
Another Stransky penalty gave South Africa some breathing space. Les Bleus went on the attack and won a penalty, but opted to go for posts. It was a decision which backfired, because although Lacroix added the three this time, France were unable to score again and South Africa emerged victorious.
Fullback André Joubert deserves a special mention for an immense performance in trying conditions. He played a starring role as the Springboks kept their dream of lifting the trophy on home soil alive by the finest of margins — a dream which they were soon to realise.
1999: South Africa 21-27 Australia A.E.T. (Twickenham, London, England)
Those who live by the sword ultimately die by the sword, as the Springboks discovered to their detriment in their first-ever Rugby World Cup defeat. Stephen Larkham’s drop goal in extra time clinched Australia’s place in the final as they stunned the then champions.
Four years earlier, Stransky had pulled off the same trick to clinch World Cup glory for South Africa. This was an historic moment for a nation that had only just won democracy, but Larkham’s ‘99 effort was iconic for different reasons.
The Brumbies icon had badly injured his knee in the game and was also struggling to see the posts due to poor eyesight, which ultimately forced him to undergo laser surgery. Nevertheless, from 48 metres out, he smashed the ball over the bar.
The Wallabies earned the win by the finest of margins in extra time, but it could have come far sooner for them. Australia were on the front foot from the get-go, but the sneaky Springboks found a way back into the game.
The Wallabies went into half-time 12-6 up thanks to four penalties from Matt Burke. However, Jannie de Beer levelled the scores with a penalty and a drop goal within 13 minutes following the restart.
Burke and de Beer then traded further penalties. The Wallabies edged into an 18-15 lead before another penalty from the Springbok flyhalf right at the death took the game to extra time.
De Beer then put the Springboks ahead for the first time with a penalty only for Burke to respond in kind before Larkham’s stunning drop goal put Australia in front.
Another Burke penalty clinched a six-point victory for the Wallabies in a Rugby World Cup classic with no tries, but plenty of entertainment.
2007: South Africa 37-13 Argentina (Stade de France, Saint-Denis, France)
A glorious night for Bryan Habana also saw Fourie du Preez produce a masterclass as the Springboks marched on to their second World Cup final.
It was an error-strewn performance from Los Pumas, who made their first major misstep in the seventh minute. Felipe Contepomi’s pass was intercepted by du Preez, who ran from just outside his 22 all the way to the try-line.
The scrumhalf was involved in the build-up to South Africa’s second try too. His pass to Butch James allowed the flyhalf to feed Habana. The flying winger chipped-and-chased, winning the foot race to the ball and diving over for the Boks’ second try.
Danie Rossouw scored South Africa’s third try on the stroke of half-time after another Argentina error. Frans Steyn pounced on a dropped ball from Juan Martín Hernández and some quick hands from Jaque Fourie and Schalk Burger set the eighth man up to score on the left.
Manuel Contepomi blew the game wide open with a try early in the second half, but two penalties from Percy Montgomery and another Habana try, this one-off an interception, sealed victory for the Springboks.
This was a significant night for Habana as he equalled Jonah Lomu’s record of eight tries at a single World Cup.
2015: South Africa 18-20 New Zealand (Twickenham, London, England)
The Springboks returned to the scene of their narrow loss to the Wallabies in 1999 only to suffer more heartbreak against New Zealand.
Jerome Kaino scored the first try of the game in the right corner for the All Blacks, slipping through Lood de Jager’s tackle following some quick hands.
However, the boot of Handré Pollard kept Heyneke Meyer’s men in the contest and South Africa led 12-7 at half-time. By then, Kaino had just received a yellow card for kicking the ball away and the All Blacks were on the ropes.
However, a Dan Carter drop goal and Beauden Barrett try put New Zealand back on the front foot before Bryan Habana saw yellow for knocking the ball out of Aaron Smith’s hands.
South Africa hung in the contest and kept the scoreboard ticking, taking the score to 20-18. They kept pushing in the closing minutes, but the All Blacks defended like trojans and hung on for the victory.
Steve Hansen’s side would go on to beat Australia in the final, and although the Springboks recovered to beat Argentina in the playoff, this was to be the end of the road for coach Meyer and the dawn of a transitional phase.
Leonard Solms is a freelance South African multi-sport journalist who has written for a number of regional, national and international newspapers and websites. He won a Rhodes-Investec Top 100 Award in 2018, the year in which he completed his Bachelor of Journalism at Rhodes University.