YOKOHAMA • Warren Gatland will get his wish for one final crack at New Zealand - a team he has never beaten - before retiring after 12 years as Wales' head coach, but Friday's third-place play-off game was not what he had in mind.
His side were battered and bruised by a typically abrasive South Africa in a match of few thrills but several spills that was settled by a Handre Pollard penalty four minutes from time.
While Wales have now lost all three of their World Cup semi-finals, including 1987 and 2011, that jinx looked like ending when Josh Adams crossed for his sixth try of the tournament, which was converted to level the scores at 16-16 with 15 minutes remaining.
Although the dream was not to be, Gatland was still "hugely proud" of his team, insisting "we can hold our heads high and leave Japan with a lot of respect".
"At 16-16 it was pretty close," said the Kiwi, whose team suffered their first loss against the Springboks in five Tests. "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 line-out drive."
"I thought the longer it went on we would get a chance, but all the games... over the past six years have been tight, so, congratulations, they came out on top tonight.
"It was a tough, physical match, they deserved to win today. I take my hat off to them, they were very good up front, defended exceptionally well.
"But I'm really proud of our guys, we never gave up... It was a real arm wrestle, a really tough encounter."
Gatland also called their upcoming bronze-medal match "a tough game to play", though he can sign off on an outstanding international coaching career during which he has won the respect of his peers with four Six Nations titles.
"My first game in charge was against England and the dream was to beat them in the last - but it's not to be," he said. "A third-place play-off... we have to give it respect.
"For my last game in charge of Wales to be against the All Blacks, a team I haven't beaten, well it's exciting for me, with me going back to coach the (Super Rugby outfit) Chiefs."
REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN