Semi-final action at the Rugby World Cup gets underway with one of the most highly anticipated contests in recent memory, when the All Blacks tackle England in a battle of North vs South for a one-way ticket into next week’s final.
Entering the tournament for the first time in recent memory with murmurs of vulnerability, the All Blacks have reminded the sporting universe why they have been the platinum standard of rugby union outfits in the modern professional era.
In particular, their first half an hour against Ireland in last weeks quarter-final was nothing short of frightening.
Clinical up front, clinical carrying the ball from the back, clinical in every little minute aspect of their game. It didn’t matter where you looked, the All Blacks looked impenetrable, and by the time the half time whistle had sounded, the game was as good as over.
When a team can turn it on like that in a do-or-die finals situation, they become very difficult to tip against.
However, the Kiwis face no easy-beats themselves in England, who have built an outfit that prides itself on dogged defence, and a willingness to play without the ball, leaving the 15 on the opposing side to make the mistakes.
It’s an uphill battle for the Northern Hemisphere giants. Of that, there is no doubt.
Coach Steve Hansen has sprung one selection surprise in the naming of his XV, favouring Scott Barrett over Sam Cane in the back row.
This is likely a call designed to add another dimension to the Kiwi lineout, owing to Barrett’s prowess at set-piece time.
The team that defeated Ireland last start is otherwise unchanged, with Beauden Barrett remaining at fullback, as Richie Mo’unga takes the reigns at flyhalf.
Cane drops to the bench, where the All Blacks boast a trio of star backs in TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, and utility Jordie Barrett.
England coach Eddie Jones has recalled George Ford to the starting XV, after the nifty playmaker spent the first exchanges of England’s quarter-final with the Wallabies on the bench.
Henry Slade drops to the bench as a result, with Owen Farrell shifting into inside centre. Manu Tuilagi will pack a punch at outside centre.
In the forwards, Courtney Lawes retains his place, as Jones opts for a more mobile forward pack.
15. Elliot Daly, 14. Anthony Watson, 13. Manu Tuilagi, 12. Owen Farrell, 11. Jonny May, 10. George Ford, 9. Ben Youngs, 8. Mako Vunipola, 7. Jamie George, 6. Kyle Sinckler, 5. Maro Itoje, 4. Courtney Lawes, 3. Tom Curry, 2. Sam Underhill, 1. Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17. Joe Marler, 18. Dan Cole, 19. George Kruis, 20. Mark Wilson, 21. Willi Heinz, 22. Henry Slade, 23. Jonathan Joseph.
15. Beauden Barrett, 14. Sevu Reece, 13. Jack Goodhue, 12. Anton Lienert-Brown, 11. George Bridge, 10. Richie Mo’unga, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Kieran Read (captain), 7. Ardie Savea, 6. Scott Barrett, 5. Sam Whitelock, 4. Brodie Retallick, 3. Nepo Laulala, 2. Codie Taylor, 1. Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16. Dane Coles, 17. Ofa Tuungafasi, 18. Angus Ta’avao, 19. Patrick Tuipulotu, 20. Sam Cane, 21. TJ Perenara, 22. Sonny Bill Williams, 23. Jordie Barrett.
England will likely approach this game with much the same mindset as they did against the Wallabies, kicking the ball early in their possessions, and allowing the Kiwis to force their attacking hand.
However, will this tactic and game-plan have the same level of effectiveness as it did last start? The answer is, well, probably not.
The All Blacks are an attacking powerhouse, and will find a way to crack open any defence, no matter how resolute. I see this game travelling in a similar trajectory.
Expect it to be close for 55-60 minutes, before a late attacking surge from the Kiwis seals them a place in yet another RWC final.
All Blacks by 11.