The trendsetting All Blacks as well as the resurgent Springboks look set to make a statement on several fronts, writes JON CARDINELLI in Yokohama.
Remember. Remember, the mood last November?
Ireland turned the rugby world on its head when they beat the All Blacks. England were competitive against New Zealand, while both England and Wales claimed important victories over South Africa and Australia.
The results as well as the performances were testimony to the northern hemisphere’s progress. The hype around the resurgence continued to build as the 2019 World Cup loomed, with England, Ireland and Wales mentioned regularly in the title conversation.
Ireland, as we now know without a shadow of a doubt, peaked too soon. The manner in which they were dismantled by the All Blacks in the recent quarter-final served to highlight their tactical and mental limitations and marked a disappointing end to coach Joe Schmidt’s largely impressive tenure.
What will the semi-finals in Yokohama this weekend teach us about the respective teams? Will fears regarding certain limitations be founded, or will the less-fancied sides explode a few myths?
For me, the only team that should be assigned the tag of favourites is the All Blacks. Despite all the talk about perceived vulnerabilities they have dominated this tournament in the departments that matter. It’s going to take something special to stop them from marching on to a third-straight World Cup title.
The Boks have been to hell and back since the 2015 World Cup, and it’s for this reason that expectations should have been tempered ahead of the 2019 global tournament. A semi-final appearance would represent a remarkable comeback for a team that was ranked seventh in the world at the start of 2018.
And yet, after spending six weeks in the Bok camp, I get the feeling that the players and coaches would not be satisfied with that sort of finish. They’ve improved over the course of tournament, but will know that Wales – the Six Nations champions – will demand more of them in a semi-final.
The pressure on Wales to perform will be significant. The Dragons have never qualified for a World Cup final before and questions have rightly been asked about their capacity to perform in big matches. Indeed, France appeared on course for a comfortable win over Wales in the quarter-final last week before lock Sebastien Vahaamahina was sent off early in the second half.
An England victory against New Zealand would be a bigger upset than a Wales win over South Africa. I can’t see it happening, though.
England thumped Australia in the quarter-final last week via an uncompromising forward and defensive display. They may find it harder to keep a constant grip on the All Blacks, though, who seem to relish the physical aspects of attack as much as the razzle dazzle.
The winner of the first semi-final will be at an advantage ahead of the decider in that they will enjoy a full week to rest and prepare. The winner of the game on Sunday, however, will have five days to gear up for an almighty physical and tactical battle against – according to World Rugby rankings – the No 1 side.
I wonder how much that will actually matter at this stage of the competition, though. The Boks are one of only three teams that have beaten the All Blacks over the past two years. If they do overcome Wales on Sunday, they will have every reason to believe that they can take the All Blacks in the final.
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