The powerhouses of the north will take on the superpowers of the south in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Southern Hemisphere nations have long ruled the global rugby landscape. All but one of the eight previous World Cups have been won by southern giants, Clive Woodward-coached England being the exception in 2003.
Northern Hemisphere sides have slowly but surely closed the gap in recent years, with Wales and Ireland even soaring to the summit of the world rankings, albeit temporarily, in the lead-up to the World Cup.
The north boasted five quarter-finalists last weekend and now we’re split right down the middle. It’s only the third time in World Cup history that a Northern Hemisphere side feature in both semi-finals and the first time ever that they are home nations.
Can England and Wales truly shift the balance of power by setting up a historic all-Northern Hemisphere/home nations World Cup final, or, will rugby’s greatest rivals New Zealand and South Africa book their places in the decider, setting up a rematch of their opening pool clash and a repeat of the classic 1995 final?
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Something has to give when the irresistible force meets the immovable object. Will the All Black tsunami wash away the English, or, will the white wall stand firm? At the start of the tournament, only three teams had a realistic chance of derailing the dominant two-time defending champions in a head-to-head showdown. England’s one of them.
The other will wage war against Wales in the second semi-final. The third? They were thoroughly dispatched last Saturday, the mighty New Zealanders making a serious statement with their 46-14 thrashing of Ireland.
Not to take anything away from the All Blacks, who were pure class, but the Irish were dead on arrival. Whether it was a case of being overwhelmed by the occasion, the aura of the all-conquering opposition on the big stage or a combination of the two, Ireland – on the night – were a shell of the side who beat the self-same All Blacks twice during the four-year cycle leading up to this year’s ground-breaking World Cup.
Based on the quarter-final thumping, the All Blacks have done it again – they’re peaking at the perfect time. So much was said of their underwhelming form in the Rugby Championship and about veterans making up a third of the 31-man World Cup squad, but Steve Hansen has once again proved what a mastermind he is, knowing exactly how and when to get the best out of his charges. Sharp, physical and deadly, it’ll take a mammoth effort to deny them a historic treble.
England were equally dominant in their quarter-final clash, walloping the Wallabies 40-16. There were striking similarities in the juggernauts’ runaway wins that only adds to the anticipation of this epic encounter. Most tellingly, both were brilliant in cashing in on opposition mistakes and finishing offensive opportunities.
This killer instinct, the ability to consistently deliver hammer blows when opportunities arise, is the All Blacks’ greatest strength. It happens to be their great rivals South Africa’s biggest shortcoming in the tournament thus far. For the Roses to have matched New Zealand in this department against Australia was a major and timely boost for them and warning to the All Blacks.
Eddie Jones’ side also showed the physicality needed to contain the Kiwis. They outmuscled the Wallabies in contact, winning the gainline battle and holding up ball-carriers to force turnovers. Their patience and composure in the first quarter, first to keep out waves of Wallaby attacks and then to score the opening try, also bodes well ahead of an expected attacking onslaught unlike any other.
England have the edge in terms of goal-kicking, and if they can keep it tight, captain Owen Farrell could kick them into the final. It’s been seven years since England have conquered the conquerors, doing so in style with a record 38-21 triumph at Twickenham. They pushed the Kiwis to the limit in the last two meetings, succumbing 24-21 in 2017 and 16-15 last December (both at Twickenham).
If they get off to a fast start and are able to lead the dance going into the dying stages, the pressure could lead to uncharacteristic errors by the All Blacks and perhaps a seismic upset. Having said that, Kieran Read and company are so polished that they should rise to the occasion like they’ve done time and time again and advance to a third straight final.
A compelling champion versus champion contest – Six Nations Grand Slam winners Wales battling Rugby Championship winners South Africa. Wales will look to ride their luck after their fortuitous 20-19 win over France. If not for lock Sebastien Vahaamahina seeing red after elbowing Wales flank Aaron Wainwright in the face in the 48th-minute of last Sunday’s quarter-final, Les Bleus would’ve likely caused another famous World Cup upset.
A disappointed Warren Gatland admitted in his post-match interview that “the better team lost today.” After cheating World Cup death, Alyn Wyn Jones and company will be determined to make it up to their legendary outgoing coach and country as a whole.
The Springboks, too, were far from their best in their quarter-final clash later in the day against red-hot hosts Japan but flexed their muscles in the second half to earn an emphatic 26-3 win in the end. How much stock does one put in the teams’ subpar showings? That’s one of the key questions of this intriguing contest. As two well-coached, world-class sides, I expect both teams will be at their best on Sunday.
Wales presents a contrasting challenge to Rassie Erasmus and his charges than the one they negotiated last weekend. Whereas Japan play an up-tempo, attacking game, Wales employ a more structured, tactical gameplan. Like the Springboks, they put a high premium on playing in the right areas of the field and prefer to play without the ball, banking on turning defence into attack. Execution, especially when it comes to tactical kicking, will, therefore, be key.
What will the Springboks do with the extra possession they’re expected to have? It’s unlikely that the disciplined two-time world champions will be coaxed into running out of their territory, which will most likely make for an arm-wrestle rather than a fan-friendly spectacle.
The Dragons’ set-pieces have been suspect. They’ve done a good job of camouflaging that vulnerability thus far, but it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the eagle-eyed Erasmus. They also haven’t faced a side capable of exploiting that weakness, with their toughest challengers up to this point, Australia and France, not renowned for their set-piece play.
The big, powerful Springboks thrive on set-pieces and will have a decisive edge in these facets. Whether they can translate that advantage into points remains to be seen as the wily Welsh limit lineouts and play fast from scrums.
The Dragons have dominated this rivalry in recent years, winning five of the last six, including claiming a 20-11 victory last November. All five of those victories came at home, with the Springboks winning the last encounter outside of Wales, triumphing 23-19 in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final at Twickenham.
There is the Jérôme Garcès factor – the fact that South Africa have only won four of the 14 Tests and have never beaten Wales under the French referee – but like in that knockout clash four years ago, the Springboks should have just enough firepower to pip the Dragons.
Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at SARugby.com and senior staff writer at Rugby365.com, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.