Everyone is surprised that there isn’t one northern hemisphere side in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup. It’s simply shown just how strong the southern hemisphere sides have been, particularly Argentina. Even people who predicted Argentina to beat Ireland in the quarter-finals wouldn’t have expected them to win in the fashion that they did. Playing in the Rugby Championship has clearly benefitted Argentina, and they play a brand of rugby with less fear.
The southern hemisphere teams all have players that are good ball handlers and are very skilful. But the coaches are installing a freedom and confidence into them. There’s more structure to the game in the northern hemisphere and for whatever reason in this World Cup it was emphasised. The way they play rugby in the southern hemisphere came to the forefront and now they hold all the semi-final spots.
The semi-finals are a fair reflection of how this tournament has gone, and which nations have been moving forward in recent years. But in the northern hemisphere we do have quality players, whether it be Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England. It’s just about harnessing that ability and skill set. It’s an exciting challenge to shift the balance of power away from the southern hemisphere, but we certainly have the ability.
The complete performance
New Zealand were the most impressive of the four quarter-final winners. Their 62-13 demotion of France was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in terms of everything just clicking together. They showed just how simple rugby can be, while completing it at an incredibly high skill-set. The ability to catch, pass, support and off-load at such a level was fantastic to see. The All Blacks were unstoppable but when you’re 20 or 30-odd points down and have no way back into the game, it’s understandable that the French heads went down. New Zealand never eased off. There was no desire to hold on to the ball and be conservative. They stuck to their plan, showed no mercy and racked up the points.
Forget going man-to-man…
South Africa have to work on breaking down the New Zealand attack. It’s easier said than done because so many of the All Blacks squad often need more than one marker. Kieran Read sometimes needs two men on him, as does Ma’a Nonu. If Sonny Bill Williams comes on he might need two men marking him. You’d need about six men marking Julian Savea! Then there’s Nehe Milner-Skudder and Dan Carter. There are so many great individual players in that team, you have to defend everyone ferociously and give them the respect that they deserve. South Africa have to go out with an attacking mind-set. While they may have a more structured kicking game, the Spring Boks can still play a very confrontational type of rugby and they need to utilise that against New Zealand.
Based on the performance against France, the All Blacks seem incredibly at ease and comfortable in what they do. It seemed like they hardly broke a sweat in the Millennium Stadium last week. The coaching staff will have the New Zealand players focussed and up for this game again and they have come out on top in six of the last seven clashes with South Africa since September 2012. They look like a solid punt to make the final.
Pocock is key to Australia’s chances
Both David Pocock and Israel Folau are injury worries for Australia ahead of their semi-final clash with Argentina and that could be a huge difference maker. Both are first class players in their own right, but the loss of Pocock is even greater than Folau because Kurtley Beale can step in and has a wide skill set at number 15. Players that step up to fill Pocock’s place are great rugby players, but his ability is on another level, and he’s shown that throughout this tournament. The way Pocock has fought back from his knee reconstruction last year is extraordinary and it will make a huge difference to Australia’s odds of winning if both he and Folau are missing. If Pocock is playing alongside Michael Hooper, the blend of slowing down Argentina is an important job, and one they’re more than capable of achieving.
Kick up a storm
Bernard Foley converted just four of his seven attempts kicking for goal in the quarter-final against Scotland, but he got the one that mattered and won them the game. As a kicker there are some days when you are in a rhythm and simply can’t miss, and there are others when you are trying to get yourself out of a rut, and find your form. When you’re having a bad day but still have the mental toughness to kick the decisive goal – that’s impressive. You’d expect Foley to be converting a higher percentage in the semi-final as he gets back on the training pitch this week and gets back into a rhythm. Argentina have kickers throughout the whole squad – not necessary goal-kicking, but kicking in attack. That is going to put huge pressure on Australia’s back field to continually step up. Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper have shown their quality over the years and they’ll need to do so again against Argentina.
Wallabies bouncing towards the final
Argentina have to play from a high intensity from the start if they are to make the World Cup final. They had two tries in the first 10 minutes against Ireland, but they benefitted from the contradicting styles of rugby. The way Ireland played suited Argentina’s attack, but if you take the form from Australia’s meetings with Argentina in the Rugby Championship they appear to be more open free-flowing attacking games. That style of rugby suits both teams, but Australia tend to come out on top – they’ve won six of the last seven clashes with Argentina and can add another on Sunday.