So, New Zealand versus England and South Africa versus Wales. If we all put our objective hats on, these semi-final match-ups are no surprise.
Many are already labelling the New Zealand versus England match as the ‘real final’, as they are the in-form teams of the tournament.
The All Blacks have perhaps surprised with just how well they have performed.
The Ireland game was a clear statement, with dominance in the forwards and an array of attacking threats in the backs. Relentless physical speed around the field coupled with their pace of thought. Sure, some things are predictable, but there is so much possible with the All Blacks’ play that their opposition is often left guessing – and, as we often hear, simply catching up.
That, in essence, is what England face this weekend.
Kicking will play a major role in England’s game, and they will keep it tight in the forwards to slow the game down. But they will also try to mix it all up by spinning the ball out the back – and they look much more dangerous doing so these days.
They may use one or two tricks they have up their sleeve if it feels right. Which, according to the England players, it will – because they are gelling as a unit.
So the semi-final takes on a certain amount of predictability, but neither the teams nor ourselves believe we’ll experience a predictable 80 minutes.
Although they do not say it out loud, I sense England are optimistic about their chances. The quarter-final win over Australia helps in that regard.
One of the unfortunate aspects of that match was that the Wallabies, at times, looked really good but were clearly not up to the task overall.
The All Blacks will be different.
Expect to see the Kiwi forwards take the game to the opposition pack and for the play to move all over the field at quick pace.
If the All Blacks score early it will be a long day at the office for Eddie Jones’ men.
It will be a brutal, physical game up front. The loose-forward battle will be fascinating. Expect Aaron Smith to generate quick ball and mix play up with box kicks and passing on different lines.
There are numerous options available for the All Blacks and it’s how effective these are, and when they are used – mixed in with other tactics – that could cause significant grief.
If England are to beat the All Blacks they will need to start strong and not let up, and somehow get the Kiwis rattled. But expect England to be significantly rattled early on too, and England don’t do well with such rattling.
If New Zealand don’t start strong themselves, they could easily see themselves behind by 12 points within the first 20 minutes.
They know that, of course. The first 20 minutes will see some of the most absorbing rugby in history. The second half could be even better.
Imagine, for example, England ahead by 15 points at the start of the second half. Those next 40 minutes will be incredible.
The second semi-final pales in comparison. It will be all about the forwards and the extent to which each team grinds the other down.
Unless Wales can muster up some backline magic and flair – they do have the ability, it’s just not often seen – then this semi-final is South Africa’s to lose.
Regardless, although it doesn’t have the gravitas of the first semi, there will be plenty of drama.
I’m seeing an All Blacks victory because of the team’s strategic and tactical versatility, and because they will come into the game better prepared mentally.
I’m seeing a South African victory because the way they play will not be effectively countered by Wales.
A great weekend of rugby ahead!