We’ve almost got to the end of the Rugby World Cup, but there’s still the most important stuff to go. BEN DIRS, an author of several sporting books and a former BBC Sport journalist, takes a deep dive at this weekend’s semi-finals.
NZ v England (Saturday, 0900 BST)
It seems almost pointless to mention that New Zealand are favourites to beat England in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final. New Zealand almost always are, whoever their opponents, whenever and wherever a World Cup is played.
New Zealand haven’t lost a Rugby World Cup match since 2007. They have beaten England in their last six meetings. The last time the All Blacks played England in a World Cup, as long ago as 1999, they won 30-16. The time before that, in 1995, a rampant Jonah Lomu ran in four tries in a 45-29 quarter-final rout.
But New Zealand sometimes lose. And opponents are rarely as good as Eddie Jones’ England. The smart money is on the All Blacks. But perhaps don’t bet too much.
These two teams have met only once in the last five years. On that occasion, at Twickenham last November, Steve Hansen’s All Blacks pipped England 16-15. It is that match, rather than anything that went before, that provides the best clues as to how things will pan out in Yokohama. ‘Sometimes the game loves you, sometimes it doesn’t,’ was Jones’ philosophical take on that last encounter. ‘The next time we play them, it might be a different story.’
Itoje key for England impact
England will ask more difficult questions of the All Blacks than their quarter-final opponents Ireland. Against the Irish, the All Blacks dominated the breakdown and feasted on quick ball, with flanker Ardie Savea and skipper Kieran Read proving almost unplayable. But against the English, the All Blacks will have the ferocious back-row of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola, so effective against Australia in their quarter-final, to deal with.
And if lock Maro Itoje (pictured) can get over the ball at the breakdown, slow things down and disrupt the All Blacks line-out alongside Courtney Lawes then New Zealand will have to find another way.
Whatever their method, New Zealand will have a more realistic game-plan than Australia. Unlike the Wallabies, whose tactical naivety made things easier than might have been for England, the All Blacks will kick for territory and expand in the right areas. They will be patient, accepting that England will try to strangle them, kick with precision and put pressure on their back three. And they will believe that when the game breaks up they will have a back-line capable of opening up England’s defence and scoring the necessary tries.
New Zealand likely to offer more attacking variety
Against South Africa in their opening fixture of the tournament, the All Blacks demonstrated they can soak up heavy shelling and still prevail. They have a crackling half-back pairing in Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga and full-back Beauden Barrett is a magnificent counter-attacking threat, as is wing Sevu Reece. Do England’s backs have as many tricks up their sleeves? It’s doubtful.
England’s performance against Australia was their best in a Rugby World Cup for many years, perhaps since they won it in 2003. But it was against a side that allowed them to play. Against New Zealand, whose creativity with ball in hand often obscures a basic philosophy of rock-solid forward play, sound defence and sensible kicking from hand, every point will be bloody hard-earned.
As Australia head coach, Eddie Jones won five of the 11 matches his side played against the All Blacks. He knows that to beat the best in the world, England will have to do the basics well, kick faultlessly, from tee and from hand, make all the important tackles and take every try-scoring opportunity.
But the suspicion is that while almost everything would have to go right for England to win, if the defending champions find themselves in a spot of bother, they will have other plans to fall back on. Courtesy of their greater flexibility of thought and sharper tools, expect the All Blacks to prevail and reach their third consecutive World Cup final. But England surely have a hope.
Wales v SA (Sunday, 0900 GMT)
Anyone expecting Sunday’s World Cup semi-final between Wales and South Africa to be a festival of running rugby will be disappointed. Both are safety-first teams whose successes are based on robust defence and kicking. But it might be the side that is willing to take a few risks that prevails in Yokohama.
Wales haven’t exactly dazzled in Japan and would almost certainly have been knocked out by France in the quarter-finals had Sebastien Vahaamahina not lost his head and seen red (even Wales head coach Warren Gatland admitted that the best side lost). Wales’ once vaunted defence has been leaky, especially out wide, and they haven’t been particularly guileful with ball in hand. But they have learned the art of winning, which counts for a lot at the highest level.
Since losing to South Africa in the last eight in 2015, Wales have beaten the Springboks four times in a row. Between 1994 and 2014, they beat them only once. But shrugging off an inferiority complex is one thing, dealing with the current Springboks’ monstrous pack and razor-sharp back three is another.
Quick ball or bust for Wales
With their chief ball-carrier and breakdown enforcer Josh Navidi injured, the fear is that they will be bludgeoned up front and South Africa’s half-back pairing of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard will hem them in with their territorial kicking. And if Wales are unable to produce quick ball, South Africa’s suffocating defence will leave their backs feeding off scraps.
Furthermore, if South Africa’s forwards allow De Klerk and Pollard to play on the front foot consistently, we might see some brilliance from winger Makazole Mapimpi, who scored twice against Japan. Cheslin Kolbe’s injury does blunt the Springboks attack a little, however.
Centre Jonathan Davies was badly missed against France but has won his battle for fitness and could make all the difference against South Africa, with his distribution skills and solidity in defence. While Mapimpi and co are electric with ball in hand, they are less impressive defensively, so expect Wales fly-half Dan Biggar to pepper them with high balls and the back three of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Josh Adams to be on the opposing three-quarter line like ravenous hyenas.
South Africa’s maul a mighty weapon
After 12 years in charge, Sunday’s game is Gatland’s last chance to lead Wales into their first Rugby World Cup final. His players will be desperate to deliver. But while Wales appear overcooked, South Africa seem to be simmering nicely.
If Wales can get off to a good start, unlike against Fiji and France, they stand a chance. Then again, Japan had the better of the first half against South Africa in their quarter-final and were hardly able to make a dent in the Springbok defence, before being monstered by the Springbok forwards after the break. The South African maul might be not be pretty, but it is incredibly effective.
If Wales don’t get off to a good start, and Pollard gets the scoreboard ticking over nicely, then they will surely suffer death by slow strangulation, like Japan. Trying to mount a comeback against a side as ugly and oppressive as South Africa is like trying to climb the north face of the Eiger in a blizzard.
Wales and South Africa play in a similar manner but the Springboks are more imposing up front and have the bigger ball carriers. So if it comes down to a slugfest, there should only be one winner. Wales fans – and neutral observers – will be hoping Gatland decides to roll the dice and make things interesting.