There is a groundswell of opinion that says that the real World Cup final was between England and New Zealand, and that the gulf in quality between that match and the South Africa versus Wales semi-final signals that England’s RFU can start clearing space in their trophy cabinet right now.
I wouldn’t be quite so hasty.
For one, there is always danger in comparing two discrete matches – rugby matches are distinct entities, played under different conditions, where the run of the game, refereeing styles and all of the myriad variables that are part of the game play out.
Ask yourself why golfers who shoot 62 one day often struggle to find the fairway the next.
There is also folly to be found in confusing the quality of Saturday’s semi-final with the capability of South Africa to match up to England in a different, new contest and to take them on at their strength, just like England did to New Zealand.
The 68,000 fans inside Yokohama International Stadium for Saturday’s first semi-final were in noticeably quieter voice than before any of the previous matches I’d attended.
Judging by the number of people in Wallabies and Ireland kit – wishful thinking gone awry – it was perhaps more a reflection of the large numbers who there without a dog in the fight, just happy to let the match play out.
Or maybe, as far as the English fans were concerned, it was a sign they were saving it all up for the end.
The England players formed a V in front of the All Blacks’ haka, as if designed to envelop the All Blacks inside it. Amusingly, ‘scrum straight Joe’ Marler had trouble staying in line for this too.
Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell were keen to downplay this afterwards – at least once I’d deciphered that the questions from English journalists about the ‘hacker’ were not computer related. But in light of the way in which England never let the All Blacks escape their net, their approach seemed remarkably prescient.
England started superbly, taking advantage of Richie Mo’unga slipping off a tackle in their first possession, quick recycling not allowing the All Blacks to get set, and Manu Tuilagi slipping over for a try, remarkably similar to the All Blacks’ opener scored by Aaron Smith last week.
A second try looked a certainty when Beauden Barrett was intercepted in midfield, but somehow brother Scott worried Jonny May into not pinning his ears back for the line and the opportunity went begging.
Everything England did was aimed at unsettling the All Blacks, turning what the All Blacks did to Ireland back on them, and not allowing them to dictate the flow and tempo of the match.
And if ever anyone ever needed a reminder of the importance of winning the gain line, it was writ large here. It was the winning and losing of this semi-final, as it will be the final.
This gain-line battle was won through the relative speed of the recycle – England fast, New Zealand slow – and the power of England’s leg drive in the carry.
Coach Steve Hansen acknowledged afterwards that he got his selection of Scott Barrett wrong, because the All Blacks weren’t able to translate that into lineout disruption. But really, it was the absence Sam Cane’s defensive presence on the edge of the ruck, and the inability to sufficiently counter Sam Underhill and Tom Curry that hurt the most.
Not only was everywhere man Maro Itoje a key cog in the midfield defence wall, he had the strength to swim through and kill a NZ maul, and the leap to twice pressure Codie Taylor into short throws in the first half hour.
Still with enough left in the tank to take down Sonny-Bill Williams in open play in the 75th minute, Itoje’s selection as man of the match was a no-brainer.
England stacked their defence on the narrow side, anticipating the All Blacks’ liking for switching play back to the tram lines. It was to prove another decisive tactic, time and again crowding the All Blacks into too little workable space up against the touchline.
A 45-metre penalty to George Ford right on the stroke of half time felt crucial, yet it was only one of many penalties that stymied New Zealand’s whole effort. Referee Nigel Owens punishing them 11-6, often for needless offences that reflected the frustration of a side not having things go their way.
By half time, Jones must have felt that it was his day, and when a player as vastly experienced as Sam Whitelock twice gave away soft off-the-ball penalties after the break, Jones must have known that all his two and a half years of planning had come to fruition.
Notably, New Zealand’s top ball-carriers were all backs – Beauden Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown and Mo’unga – increasingly impotent from deeper and deeper as the game went on. On the other hand, it was Billy and Mako Vunipola who carried most for England – more emphasis of where the dominance lay.
Short kick-offs were tried, tap-backs won, but the All Blacks were too rattled to position somebody directly behind to receive the tap, whereas Curry knew exactly where the ball was going.
England’s only worrisome moments came together, at the end of the third quarter. First, replacement centre Henry Slade was given the benefit of the doubt for a tackle on Sevu Reece when a replay from behind picked up his right arm wrapping when other angles didn’t.
From the ensuing lineout, hooker Jamie George overshot Itoje, gifting Ardie Savea a try that after all of England’s sterling defensive work seemed ridiculously wasteful.
It mattered not. Jordie Barrett panicked himself into an offload that didn’t need to be attempted, Ford kicked a penalty for offside from the turnover, and normal order was restored right through to the finish.
Jones spoke afterwards about the benefit of preparing specifically for this game for two and a half years. It revealed not a disrespect for other sides, or for their 6 Nations campaigns, but an understanding that to win the World Cup they would need to beat New Zealand at some point.
Jones’ revelation also served as a reminder that the slate is wiped clean for this final, and that by contrast, facing South Africa on just one week’s preparation presents a whole different challenge.
Nobody expected Sunday’s second semi-final to contain the attacking intent nor the quality of execution from the day before. Unfortunately, they were on the money.
Those complaining that the South African game plan was too one-dimensional had a point – it would have been nice to see halfback Faf de Klerk kick a couple with his right foot just to mix things up a bit.
Wales soon became as ragged as its Pembrokeshire coastline, their forwards losing the collision battle and No.8 Ross Moriarty all at sea with his kick-off reception. But they dug in, caught their share of the high balls, and they stayed in touch on the scoreboard.
South Africa’s game plan was old school World Cup knockout rugby, determined not to invite Wales into the game early through taking unnecessary risks chasing fools’ gold, then looking to gradually wear them down by attrition.
The paradox was that by playing so far within themselves, they kept Wales alive. It was almost as if South Africa were playing to protect a lead, even while it was 0-0.
Just when it looked like neither side was capable of manufacturing a try, Handre Pollard seized on a little half-gap, Wales stood around waiting for a penalty to be blown, and Damian de Allende wriggled around and through Dan Biggar to score.
To their enormous credit, Wales found it in themselves to reply. A penalty kick to a five-metre lineout, close-range attack after close-range attack repelled by staunch defence, and then a scrum chosen instead of a certain three points. The Springboks’ over-commitment to the push cost them on the short side as Josh Adams dashed over in space.
The final ten minutes were all about an arm wrestle for field position to try to engineer a penalty, or if not, to get close enough for a drop goal. Wales missed on their attempt, South Africa – courtesy of the injection of Francios Louw and Pollard’s perfect boot – didn’t miss with theirs.
Afterwards, everyone wanted to push South Africa into playing more expansively next week. After all, it’s no fun going to watch a concert pianist only for them to tease you by playing ‘Chopsticks’.
Rassie Erasmus, however, wasn’t having a bar of it, essentially promising more of the same. He knows exactly where his side has come from, what it has done along the way, and what it can do in a World Cup final.
He may not beat England through the element of surprise, but he knows he can beat them by repelling England in the middle of the ground, by creating pressure off his set piece, and through opportunism and speed of strike when an opportunity presents itself.
Classic South African rugby.
In order for South Africa to win the World Cup, they will need to be the first team to win a final after losing a pool match. On the other hand, no team that failed to escape the pool phase at one Cup gone on to win the next, as England will have to do.
Draw too much from the semi-finals at your peril – I think we’re in for a titanic struggle.
England have more strings to their bow, and the courage to use them. There is also a sense of destiny around the way Eddie Jones has planned and led this campaign.
It’s only Tuesday, but at this early stage it feels like England’s hoodoos are the more likely to be broken.