But the European neutral, observing a southern denouement on northern soil, was entitled to want New Zealand in the final. If the Six Nations were to be booted out by the quarter-final stage, the English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Italian spectator needed replacement pleasures; and those were unlikely to be provided by a South Africa XV for whom this World Cup has become one long apology to the homeland for the Japan defeat.
Springbok rugby is seldom exuberant. Skilful, yes, but exuberant, no. The first-week calamity in Brighton was only going to produce one response: a grinding, risk-free atonement mission. Only one template would be seen against the mighty All Blacks. Negation, with heightened discipline and metronomic penalty kicking when the better team’s frustration boiled over.
The backdrop was that New Zealand had lost three games since the 2011 World Cup, which brought them their second title, again on home soil. Eleven of the 23 involved in that tournament were on duty again in front of 80,090 at Twickenham. They were chasing a record 13th consecutive victory in World Cup action and bidding to become the first nation to defend a global title. Their all-time ratio was: played 536, won 411, at 76.68 per cent.
In his newspaper column, Graham Henry, their former coach, felt no need to wait for this semi-final before anointing this generation “probably the best ever”. But South Africa could still kill that claim, and suck the glamour from next Saturday’s final, which needs enticing storylines to offset European depression.
At half-time New Zealand returned early from the dressing room to practise drills. Dramatic improvement was called for. They found it, too, after Nehe Milner-Skudder, one of the few wingers in world rugby who can still actually sidestep, was removed by injury after Bryan Habana had crashed into the back of him.
Minutes later Milner-Skudder’s replacement, Beauden Barrett, touched down in the corner, and Habana was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on earlier in the passage of play. Though still hounded and harried by the Springboks, the odds-on favourites had recovered their composure, and pinned South Africa in their own final third of the pitch as drifting rain brought a harbinger of winter.
When the end came the World Cup organisers were about ready to cartwheel across the pitch. That rock of the southern islands, Richie McCaw, was through to the final. Julian Savea, the new Jonah Lomu, will join him. So will the Smiths, Ben and Aaron, and that redoubtable centre partnership, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Kaino, outstanding at blindside flanker in this tournament, is another worthy finalist, even allowing for his spell in the doghouse here.
To cap off a World Cup still affected by England’s eerie absence, the last game needs the world’s primary exponents of skill, of enterprise. It needs the All Black aura. There were times when that force-field was at risk of short-circuiting against a limited Springbok side who kicked six penalties but never scored a try.
Back-to-back world titles for the All Blacks seem likely. A win away from the comforts of home is within reach. The rest of the sport may be forced to look and learn again. Which would be no bad thing.