Last week my colleague Alex Plimmer correctly predicted the winners of three of the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. It was a weekend of misery for the northern hemisphere, with spirited displays from Scotland and Wales foiled by late scores and a dollop of controversy, whilst Ireland crumbled against a clinical Argentine side. As for France? Well, at least the Philippe Saint-André era of chaos is now over.
Now we must turn our attentions to the semi-finals, as the four Rugby Championship sides battle it out for a place on the Twickenham stage on October 31st. Each, apart from plucky upstarts Argentina, has two Webb Ellis trophies to its name, and south west London will this weekend play host to the attritional scraps of the southern stars.
South Africa vs. New Zealand – Saturday 4pm at Twickenham Stadium
Playing a woeful France in Cardiff last Saturday, the All Blacks played almost the perfect game of rugby. Julian Savea’s hat-trick pushed him three clear at the top of the table and ever closer to the national try-scoring record after just 3 years on the scene, and the bench ran rampant to give Dan Carter yet more unnecessary kicking practice.
They can call upon a starting XV with just one change from that record-obliterating encounter, with Joe Moody (also known as the prop with incredible offloads) replacing Wyatt Crockett up front. Out wide they have the yin and yang pairing of wrecking ball Savea and the nimble assassin Nehe Milner-Skudder, and Richie McCaw remains the finest leader on the international scene. To stop New Zealand would be to split the atom.
The latest lambs to step up to the plate are South Africa, completing the semi-final matchup that everyone knew would happen that the Springboks did almost badly enough to avoid, courtesy of stumbles against Japan and Wales. It was against the latter last Saturday that it took a late Fourie Du Preez try to limp through, and the same starting XV will emerge against the All Blacks. The bench is boosted by 2007’s man-of-the-tournament Victor Matfield, though the sublime Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth aren’t likely to give him a sniff of the grass, and Bryan Habana remains just a try away from breaking Jonah Lomu’s World Cup tally.
Ultimately this game, which former All Black skipper Zinzan Brooke described as “the ultimate rivalry in rugby” in a Telegraph article this week, looks set to come down to the battle up front. The tantalising prospect of Francois Louw, Duane Vermuelen and Schalk Burger scavenging against McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read makes this unmissable, however New Zealand’s superior back pack will capitalise on any opportunity.
South Africa’s spluttery run to this stage doesn’t bode well for the toughest opponents of all, and although coach Heyneke Meyer might have been playing mind games when he called the current New Zealand side the greatest of all time, it would be foolish to bet against them proving him right.
Prediction: New Zealand by 15 points
Argentina vs. Australia – Sunday 4pm at Twickenham Stadium
If it wasn’t for referee Craig Joubert awarding Bernard Foley a penalty in the dying seconds at Twickenham last Sunday, Australia wouldn’t be here. According to World Rugby on Monday, the sprinting Joubert should have awarded a scrum and Scotland might have held on to their two point edge. Alas, here we are.
Australia will be hoping for Foley to put in a barnstorming display like that against England, and the return of Israel Folau is certain to stimulate all aspects of the Wallabies’ play. Australia’s superstars, like the Toulon pair Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell and back-rowers Michael Hooper and David Pocock, may be household names, yet increasing talk of their chances following victory in the ‘group of death’ seems to be getting to them.
Argentina had a rather less tense encounter earlier on Sunday, putting 43 points past an Irish defence lacking Paul O’Connell and Jonny Sexton. Their wonderfully consistent side has a habit of that, having scored the most points in the tournament’s group stages. They put up an impressive fight against the All Blacks at Wembley, and have unrivalled depth at almost every position.
Fly-half Nicolás Sánchez is the leading points scorer remaining in the tournament, and the sprawling back-line can create space – and spectacular tries – at absolutely any moment. Recent World Cups have seen the Pumas emerge as a genuine force in international rugby, and the impending inauguration of the first Argentine franchise in Super Rugby ensures that there is no better time for the team to take the big boys by storm.
Australia may have won every World Cup hosted on these shores, but their stumbles against Scotland displayed flaws in Michael Cheika’s side that Argentina will be keen to exploit. Mark Bennett’s splendid interception try and Greig Laidlaw’s metronomic kicking almost unravelled their quest and, in Sánchez and Juan Martín Hernández, Argentina boast a similarly dangerous pairing.
Though their Rugby Championship encounter in July, where Australia triumphed 34-9 in Mendoza on their way to an undefeated title, may suggest otherwise, I believe that Argentina come into this match with the stronger side and less pressure. Either way, it’s sure to be a tremendous encounter.
Prediction: Argentina by 5 points