And then there were four. The Rugby World Cup semi-finals present two absolutely fascinating contests this weekend, and there’s no doubt at all that both winners will have great belief that they can lift the William Webb Ellis trophy.
But they’re fascinating contests for an entirely different reason. While Digger, Geoff and Harry have been expressing feelings of nerves and panic and an anxiety that has led the Hairy Man to completely obliterate the 150-word limit this week, Nobes and I will be sitting back and just enjoying the rugby with our respective countries’ failings now well behind us.
Let me tell you, watching a game with all your fingernails still in place by full time is a wonderful feeling!
The question is, will any of our colleagues be joining us on the metaphorical tipping panel couch next weekend?
LAST WEEK: Digger, Geoff, Nobes and The Crowd 4; Harry 3, Brett 2.
OVERALL: The Crowd 39; Geoff and Digger 37; Nobes 35, Harry 34, Brett 33.
Tips: New Zealand, South Africa
Down to the final four, fantastic four, four musketeers, four blind mice (OK, not quite, but I ran out of ideas) all with a guaranteed future two-week stay in beautiful Japan, but who will go forth to battle for the cup and who will have to front up to the equivalent of attending your school prom with your mum?
First off, we have the match-up many will tell you is the final in drag, England and New Zealand. Both sides look to have timed their challenge for the title impeccably by showing some great form in their individual quarter-finals, disposing of their opposition with authority.
There is somewhat of the unknown in this clash, with few recent games to judge by. The All Blacks won their most recent encounter by just one point.
Undoubtedly it is my bias speaking, but I feel the All Blacks appear a little sharper with ball in hand and taking opportunities than this English side, so I’m tipping New Zealand to take this game with a couple of decisive moments.
The second semi also promises a tight affair: South Africa looking to go one further than 2015 and Wales looking to make their first showpiece final.
The biggest deciding factor in this encounter is the South Africans’ impressive defence and Wales’ lacklustre attack bashing heads, and I simply cannot see Wales scoring enough points, so the Boks for me. Although if the Welsh can drag the South Africans into a slug fest, then it might just be anyone’s game.
Tips: New Zealand, South Africa
We have the four nations we expected in the semis, with some of them showing certain weaknesses and others unexpected strength.
England are probably the team that always plays the same game no matter who the opposite are. They give the ball away and exercise an impregnable defence and make use of one hundred percent of the opportunities they generate from that defensive pressure, which is led by their two young flankers. They have a strong set piece, two magnificent drivers, dominating centres and great finishers outside. A very complete team with a coaching staff that knows what to do.
England are going to face a team that contains the largest amount of X-factor players that impact games. The All Blacks’ 23 have the firepower to win a match. No other team has the same quality and quantity of players. If we add to this that Steve Hansen hid players away all year to surprise in this World Cup, we have a perfect combo.
If the men in black play 80 minutes the way they played the first half against Ireland they won’t find rivals. An oiled machine that plays without making mistakes at an enviable speed. All their players have a talent to surprise anyone.
South Africa has an excellent defence and the best offensive tackle of the four semi-finalists. The reality is that opponents know that after facing the Springboks, their bodies should rest in ice cubes for hours to deflate their aching bodies. They are improving match after match. They are a team with a lot of depth and that makes them very dangerous in these defining moments.
They will be finalists and maybe something else if they synchronise a couple of things. The fullback is not going through a good time and will be tested by Wales.
Warren Gatland’s team seems to be suffering from the lack of depth in their ranks and the injuries are taxing them. We could see certain deficiencies in both attack and defence in their last game, when they won by only one point against a French team diminished for much of the second half and with a dubious conquest at the end of the game.
Tips: New Zealand, South Africa
Eddie, Shag, Gats and Rassie.
Unfortunately no Cheik, but that topic has been done to death over the last few days, and only the blindly faithful would believe that the Wallabies didn’t cop their right whack exiting at the quarter-final stage.
Eddie has laid it on thick this week, trying to imply that his opponent is under pressure. “There are 120 million Japanese people out there whose second team is the All Blacks”, but what might have been a factor eight years ago only comes across this time as lame and mischievous deflection.
England have more prongs to their game than Ireland and surely won’t allow the same speed of recycle and the same easy metres that Moody, Read and co. stole last week. But the All Blacks have timed their run beautifully – they are both fresh and battle-hardened, and enjoying the superb underfoot conditions. The first final spot goes to Shag.
South Africa also have a spring in their step. The speed at which their defenders reset and then applied pressure to the Japanese runners last week was a sight to behold. If it is true that they don’t have a stack of points in them, it is doubly true that don’t have points to give away.
That is Wales’ biggest challenge: how will their ponderous attack find a way to hurt such a formidable defence? They are well led, spirited and know how to scrape out a win. But they also used up all of their luck last week. The second final spot goes to Rassie.
Tips: New Zealand, South Africa
We are a funny breed, sports fans. We all say offence just puts bums on seats while defence wins championships. And then we obsess only on attack stats.
Thus it was that the four quarter-finalists who kicked least and seemed to believe (with their actions, if not their words, but maybe in the case of the Wallabies with both) that you can win a World Cup by building ten to 20 phases from within your own half are all going home early.
Now, we have the four most aggressive, muscular defences left. The year of 2019 is most relevant. Wales have been stingy, which was crucial in notching 11 wins, because they average 11-12 points less scored than England and South Africa respectively.
Wales have given up only 15.2 points per Test in 2019. Both England and South Africa only allowed 11.5 and 11.0 points per Test, but both score 36 or more per Test (or over 30 if tier-two nations are excluded). The All Blacks are the only complete team left in the competition. The Cup is theirs to lose. They have no weaknesses, no weak players, and no personnel problems.
England have played a lot of rugby this year: 13 Tests. However, their World Cup run has probably been too easy. They were fed cannon fodder USA and Tonga, beat a 14-man Pumas side that looked disinterested, skipped the France match-up, and ousted a naive Australian team that was selected sentimentally rather than with a true game plan in mind.
The ferocity, devilish kicking, and pace on the counter that the Kiwis can bring will be a rude shock for the Poms, whose worst results in 2019 were a Six Nation loss to Wales, a 38-38 draw with Scotland, and a dour loss to Wales in which the English attack failed to fire.
The All Blacks should win comfortably, even though the English pack will perform well at set-piece time, and the Kamikaze Kids will compete well with Sam Cane and Ardie Savea. I do not see England able to stop the counters. NZ by 15 or more.
Wales and South Africa will produce the finalist charged with the duty of derailing the All Blacks’ mad quest to give Steve Hansen a three-peat to retire on. Depth is king in the Cup, and Wales can ill afford to lose another loosie, but they did, to a popped hamstring: one of the players of the tournament in Josh Navidi.
Up against a team dubbed the most physical ever to take a field by a beaten Italy coach, the Welsh face an attack on their lineout – the Boks have won 57 of 57 throws on their own feed and stolen 11 opponent throws, the best in the tournament – and scrum, but also a breakdown battle royale, because Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have half their team competing over tackled ball.
Welsh fans will point to the recent head-to-head, all in Cardiff at the end of long seasons, but the more useful comparisons are probably mutual foes. Wales struggled to beat Australia, and needed an intercept, while the Boks beat the Wallabies 35-17 in Australia. South Africa beat Italy 49-3, Wales won in Rome 26-15.
The matches between these great rugby nations have been close lately, and both sides are hard to crack, but the Boks have more line-breakers than Wales – South Africa are only behind New Zealand in clean breaks, tries per game, and points per game. Plus, Wales have made 134 more tackles, and the peerless Alun Wyn Jones is fighting Father Time, not Eben Etzebeth and his four lock mates. Boks by 10.
Tips: New Zealand, Wales (because someone has to)
OK, then. Here we go. Two games I don’t care about… No, just kidding. Though it is weird to be so looking forward to games you have no skin in.
Weird to be following such a tome, too, after Harry had been the epitome of short and sharp through this tournament to date. I reckon it’s nerves. Some people get itchy when they’re nervous and fretting; others get sweaty. Harry gets wordy…
Anyhoo, as much as it would be great to have England go all the way now and lift Bill for the second time, so that at the very least the Wallabies can say they were beaten by the eventual champions, I’m just not convinced they have enough points in them to keep the All Blacks at bay.
The problem for England is going to be keeping touch. It will be a lot easier for them if they can score first and early, and build momentum from there, but if New Zealand get an early lead, I’m not sure Owen Farrell’s boot is going to be enough for them to remain within striking distance.
Plus, there’s only so much smug Eddie a rugby fan can take.
Before I get onto the other game, I need to say that if you’ve listened to the semi-final preview chats on the latest Game of Codes podcast, best you just click on a different link now. Or at the very least scroll straight down to the comments. And scroll past anything that suggests I’m contradicting myself.
Because I’m going to. I’m not super-confident the boyos can beat the Boks, but I am confident enough to say they’ve definitely played their worst game of the tournament now.
They were terrible against France. I mean, really, genuinely terrible. And bad.
Yet they still found a way to win, even if it involved hoodwinking officialdom.
They can compete up front, but won’t want to get drawn into a set-piece battle. They have some genuinely good finishers, like the Boks, but like the Boks, need to find a way of creating opportunities for those finishers. And like the Boks, they’ve got a sharp-shooting fly half who can keep a scoreboard ticking. Two of them, in fact.
So, why not?
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