If Japan showed us how enthralling running rugby can be during this World Cup, the All Blacks’ semi-final against England this weekend will be a reminder of the game’s ferocity.
Regrettably the tournament in Japan has also shown us how referees and their assistants can ruin a game of rugby, or at least have far too much influence.
Hopefully on Saturday in Yokohama all of the game’s virtues are expressed with minimal intervention from the whistleblower.
The heavyweight clash between the top-two ranked sides in the world has so much potential to be a classic, and for Wallabies fans it will be nice to move on from last weekend’s deflating elimination.
The post-mortem from the Wallabies’ 40-16 capitulation to England in Oita has been brutal and bitter, which was perhaps inevitable given the ongoing turmoil in Australian rugby that remarkably started not long after the last World Cup.
For England, the turnaround since the 2015 tournament, when they failed to get to the knockout stages, has shown that Eddie Jones’s coaching methods, although sometimes polarising and quirky, can be highly effective.
After a dismal last four years under Michael Cheika, Wallabies fans are crying out for more Eddie-style pragmatism from the new coach and not stubborn adherence to a rusted-on philosophy that proved impotent.
One of the saddest facets to the fallout with the national team is that two great Wallabies, David Pocock and Will Genia, probably played their last Tests for Australia, and that didn’t generate the coverage it deserved. Instead bickering and finger-pointing have been on the agenda.
But back to this weekend.
It’s incredible to believe that when All Blacks wrecking ball Jonah Lomu was swatting England tacklers out of the way in 1995 we’d have to wait until Saturday to watch to two nations battle it out in a knockout game of the World Cup.
In that semi-final in South Africa, which the All Blacks won 45-29, Lomu blitzed a shell-shocked England with four tries.
It won’t be as emphatic in Yokohama.
England have won just one of their last 16 Tests against the All Blacks, which was in 2012 at Twickenham. It should be noted that five of their last six wins have been by single-figure margins, two by a single point.
Of course there’s a psychological barrier for England to get over, but with their powerful pack, disciplined defence, a no-frills approach and George Ford and Owen Farrell moving them forward mostly with measured kicking, they can push the All Blacks all the way.
England will need to make sure that Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett don’t get on the front foot with space or they will tear them up. So they’ll be keen to slow the tempo of the game by suffocating New Zealand with their rushing defence that held firm against Australia. Remember, Kiwi John Mitchell is in charge of England’s defence, and he’ll be licking his lips for the chance to shut down the All Blacks.
“New Zealand are a great team,” a typically praise-heavy Eddie said on Thursday, looking to talk up the Kiwis and take the heat off his men.
“Like any good team, you have to take away time and space from them and you have to find areas you can pressure them. We believe we have identified a number of areas where we can do that.”
It’s likely that a well-drilled England won’t aim to move the ball much behind the advantage line, but when they get into All Blacks’ territory, they’ll move the ball close to the ruck with their big forwards as well as Manu Tuilagi in midfield.
And it wouldn’t be England if they didn’t attempt to grind out an advantage in the scrum.
And with the shift of Sam Cane to the bench and the promotion of Scott Barrett to No. 6, Steve Hansen wants to match the English size in the lineout too. That gives New Zealand four genuine jumpers in their pack: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and the 1.98-metre, 117-kilogram Barrett.
The rest of the starting team is the same as the 46-14 quarter-final win over Ireland, with the only other change being Patrick Tuipulotu taking the bench spot of Matt Todd, who has an injured shoulder.
The All Blacks are settled and on a roll. They will look to puncture the Poms all over the park with their usual speed and precision. Like Japan, but with added muscle.
Eddie Jones has masterminded many wins – in Australia, South Africa, Japan and England – with his tactical nous but it’s too big a task to shut down this All Blacks behemoth and turn England’s 2015 failure into a 2019 final.