Dark horses and pedigreed powerhouses plan on putting their best foot forward in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Surprise package Argentina – semi-finalists in 2007 and 2015 – will take on three-time champions New Zealand in the first of the last-four fixtures on Friday night with reigning champions South Africa, who are chasing a record fourth title, tackling 2003 winners England in the second on Saturday evening.
Both matches will be played at Stade de France in Saint-Denis.
Argentina v New Zealand
Friday, 20 October – 21:00
Argentina are daring to dream after their 29-17 upset of Wales last weekend. That dream, though, may well turn into a nightmare on Friday night as they come up against an All Blacks side reborn.
Like a giant anaconda that shed its skin, New Zealand shook off years of underperforming affliction and rose as underdogs to knock out then-world No 1 Ireland with a 28-24 win for the ages last weekend.
Looking like the All Blacks of old, they fired on all cylinders and are now slight favourites to go all the way at 1.08. South Africa are 1.14 outright, England 5.50 and Argentina 8.00.
After giving up 10 unanswered points to Wales in the opening quarter, Los Pumas did well to stay in the fight and chip away through Emiliano Boffelli’s boot to sneak into the lead, and the longer they stay within reach of New Zealand, the more their super slim chance of shocking the world will swell.
They have beaten the All Blacks twice in their last seven meetings – a historic 25-15 triumph in Sydney in 2020 and a 25-18 win in Christchurch last year – but this is a World Cup semi-final we’re talking about. There will be no complacency like back then.
The last two games in the rivalry showed the difference in class between them with the Kiwis coming out 53-3 and 41-12 victors (last September and in July of this year respectively), and with the men in black having rediscovered the warrior within, they’ll canter into the final.
England v South Africa
Saturday, 21 October – 21:00
It’s a repeat of the 2019 decider in Japan. It was one of the Springboks’ great triumphs, a dominant display of total rugby and a team performance of note as the men in green and gold romped to a 32-12 win.
For England, who’d astonishingly ousted the All Blacks the previous weekend, it was the cruellest of reality checks and biggest of let downs. Blown away by a bewildered Bok team, they’ve struggled to pick up the pieces ever since.
The Red Rose will draw inspiration from that 19-7 shock semi-final win over New Zealand as they plot to ambush favourites South Africa in a similar way.
England may also feel that much as they did against the Kiwis four years ago, the Boks played their final against France last weekend, an epic they edged 29-28…whatever mental preparation it takes for them to get up for what will be a mighty battle after they just scraped past Fiji (30-24).
The Boks, who are back at the top of the world rankings, are firm favourites for good reason. The most glaring difference between the two teams is their physicality.
South Africa are renowned for their brutality, while England came off second best in most of the exchanges against Fiji, with two of their key men Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes both smashed back on more than one occasion.
The Pacific Islanders also proved the English are vulnerable to counter-rucking as they seized a couple of turnovers when they flooded the breakdown. Bank on the Boks to follow suit.
What England are proficient at is legally sacking the maul. Itoje, in particular, has done a fantastic job in this department and it could nullify one of the Boks’ traditional strengths.
Overall, while they haven’t awed by any means, what England have done in France is play intelligent tournament rugby. From George Ford’s drop goals that helped sink Los Pumas in their tournament opener to Owen Farrell’s drop goal and penalty at the death last weekend, they’ve played tactically, taken points any way they can and embraced winning ugly if need be.
Farrell’s boot has been and will be massive for them come Saturday. The Boks have been exceptionally disciplined, though, and England haven’t shown the punch or panache necessary to force them into making mistakes and conceding penalties. Any penalties they do get, Farrell has to convert if they’re to stay in the fight.
The Boks, meanwhile, will want to keep the intensity that fuelled their thrilling win over France and take their chances like they did against Les Bleus. Their kicking out of hand was pinpoint, which, coupled with exemplary contesting, earned them two of their four tries and will once again form a key part of their strategy.
There’s an opportunity for the Boks to do damage at scrum time, too, as they famously did in the 2019 final, and with significantly greater firepower coming off the bench, Siya Kolisi and company will punch their ticket to a second successive World Cup final.