After one of the most highly-anticipated quarter-final rounds in history, we now face the prospect of having just four more matches left in this year’s World Cup. It really is do or die for the remaining quartet of teams,
With each semi-final featuring a representative of each hemisphere, there remains the very real possibility of an England v Wales final, taking the ultimate grudge match to the ultimate stage. Of course, we could also see a repeat of the opening weekend’s clash between the Springboks and the All Blacks. There are lots of ways this weekend might play out, and it promises to be one of the most exciting weekends rugby has ever seen.
England will go into Saturday’s semi-final brimming with even more confidence than usual, thanks to an unbeaten run in the pool stage and a comprehensive win over Australia. Of course, look beneath the surface and things aren’t necessarily quite as clear-cut as they seem; though Australia are always thought of as heavyweights, the truth is that the Wallabies haven’t been up to scratch for a while now, and England didn’t exactly face any top-quality competition during the pool (the closest was a pretty awful Argentina side in what ended up being England’s final group match). All that considered, there’s a lot to be said for cultivating a winning habit, and there’s definitely an argument that Eddie Jones’s men are peaking at just the right time. Taking form, enthusiasm and confidence over to Yokohama will be key, but Saturday’s opponents aren’t exactly slouches themselves…
Death, taxes, and New Zealand being favourites for the World Cup. It comes as no surprise to even those with simply a passing interest in rugby that the All Blacks are much fancied ahead of the semi-finals, and a series of emphatic victories so far in the tournament has done their chances no harm.
That first pool match against South Africa was a great litmus test (for both teams), and no doubt went some way to putting to bed any nerves following the Springboks’ win at this year’s Rugby Championship. The New Zealanders’ signature blend of style, skill, strength and solidity under pressure make it difficult to honestly look past them for the title, though Eddie Jones’s men certainly have the tools in their arsenal to pose a stern test.
Indeed, there has been no shortage of rumblings about a potential close encounter in the lead up to this match, with Steve Hansen even being asked about the possibility of the fixture going right down to sudden death added time. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time this year a World Cup fixture between the Kiwis and the English ended up going down to the wire… (sorry, Martin Guptill).
Prediction: It’s a fool’s errand to bet against New Zealand, as improbable as it seems for one nation to win three World Cups on the bounce. England will no doubt be amped up for what will be the fight of their lives and will be competitive, but the All Blacks have a bottomless box of tricks. New Zealand by 11.
Here’s your annual reminder that the clocks go back on Sunday… here’s hoping Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus have remembered to set their squad’s alarms.
Wales have had a tournament’s worth of scares already, sending an already temperamental fanbase into active hysteria. After the narrowest of wins over France in the quarter-final, Warren Gatland’s men must be worried that they’ve already used their Get Out of Jail Free card. Equally, the Six Nations Grand Slam champions have played (or threatened to play) some good stuff in flashes, and are surely due a cohesive performance. With the impressive Josh Navidi ruled out of the rest of the tournament, the breakdown will be a huge concern for the Welsh, and the likes of Justin Tipuric and Aaron Wainwright will need to keep their wits about them when it comes to turnovers, and the whole pack will need to front up big style to counter the South African maul. If midfield stalwart Jonathan Davies passes his fitness test, that will give Gatland’s side a huge and much-needed boost.
South Africa really ground out their 26-3 victory over host nation Japan to secure their place in the semi-final, breaking millions of hearts around the world in the process. The Rugby Championship champs broke the spirit of the Japanese courtesy of a particularly monstrous maul, with Handre Pollard slotting a couple of crucial kicks to put the Boks on a strong footing. The transformation this squad has undergone under Erasmus really is remarkable, and the team won’t want to let that momentum slip. Sharpshooters like Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi will take big advantage of any slip ups or slow starts from Wales, and zippy Faf de Klerk will be champing at the bit to get going in the biggest game of his life.
Prediction: the Welsh team will be desperate to send departing coach Gatland out on a high, but have seen poor starts, shaky defence and handling errors almost cost them several times in the tournament. South Africa came into the tournament in strong form, and will be looking to end that way too. If they get that maul going, there’s no stopping them. South Africa by 4.