Boks, ABs on collision course

South Africa will beat Wales and New Zealand will down France to set up an epic World Cup semi-final meeting at Twickenham next week, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.

One gets the feeling that this World Cup tournament has even more to give. There will be more drama. More surprises. Perhaps not this weekend, but certainly before the curtain falls for the final time on 31 October.

This week, players and coaches have spoken about making a physical and mental shift. The message coming out of every one of the eight camps is that pressure management as well as discipline will be decisive. The team that loses its nerve will fall by the wayside. The team that oversteps the mark will be on the next plane out of Heathrow.

The Boks are expected to win their quarter-final match against Wales this Saturday. Some may view the result as all-important. Some might suggest that semi-final qualification equates to a campaign success.

However, the quality of performance will be significant. The Boks need to show an improvement if they’re to take any momentum into their next match. They need to build some confidence ahead of a possible semi-final meeting with the All Blacks, a team they’ve beaten just once in the last seven Tests.

The All Blacks have to be favourites to beat France in Cardiff this Saturday. There’s been a lot of hype in the English and French press about this game mirroring the 2007 quarter-final at the very same ground. The northern hemisphere journalists are hoping that history repeats itself, and that the tournament favourites make another early exit.

The French media has slammed the players as well as the coach in the wake of France’s 24-9 defeat to Ireland last Sunday. Some commentators feel this criticism will inspire a fiery French performance. Others, like former France coach Marc Lièvremont, believe it would take a miracle for Les Bleus to fell the mighty All Blacks.

New Zealand have been anything but mighty during the pool stage. This has sparked some debate, especially in the English media, about where the All Blacks are as a team and possibly how far they will go at this tournament. Some have gone as far to suggest that Steve Hansen and his charges may be there for the taking.

However, a closer look at those four performances indicates that the opposite may be true. The All Blacks have rarely moved out of second gear. For the past four weeks, they have looked like a team that is holding something back.

There has been none of the innovation and ruthlessness that has defined their play over the past four years. One gets the feeling that they’re saving their bullets for the play-offs. France could become the first victims of a New Zealand assault in the play-offs.

By comparison, the Boks have already shown their hand at this tournament. The loss to Japan forced them to field their strongest possible combination in subsequent matches against Samoa, Scotland and the USA. One wonders what subtleties, if any, South Africa will have in reserve if they meet New Zealand in a semi-final next week.

On the other hand, perhaps Ireland did the Boks a favour when they hammered France last week. The French will be up for the coming clash against the All Blacks. They may not succeed in beating the All Blacks on the scoreboard, but they might inflict some lasting physical damage on the Kiwi pack.

Australia look well placed to qualify for the final from here. They should be too strong for Scotland this Saturday. They will feel confident about their ability to beat Argentina or Ireland in their semi-final.

That match between the Pumas and Ireland could serve up a surprise. Argentina have impressed over the course of the pool stage with their forward display. They’ve racked up 22 tries. Only the All Blacks and Boks have scored more.

Argentina will fancy their chances of victory now that Ireland forwards Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony have been ruled out with injuries. Sean O’Brien has been suspended for throwing a punch in the most recent clash.

And yet, after witnessing the overwhelming support for Ireland at the Millennium Stadium last week, I'm reluctant to write off Joe Schmidt’s men. As Ireland showed against the Boks and Australia last November, they too may have a couple of tricks up their sleeve.

Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli