An unpredictable clash of the titans awaits England and South Africa

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After two contrasting semi-finals, England and South Africa will now meet on Saturday to compete for rugby’s biggest prize. England produced an outstanding performance to overwhelm tournament favourites New Zealand on Saturday, while South Africa edged past Wales in a cagey affair on Sunday.

After a week of verbal jousting between Eddie Jones and Steve Hansen, when England and New Zealand took to the field it felt like a special occasion. England immediately sent a message that they wouldn’t be afraid of the reigning double world champions, lining up in an arrow formation to face the Haka, a tactic Mako Vunipola later admitted was Jones’ idea.

All the pre-game talk between the coaches had been about pressure, but the game was all about power and speed of play, and England’s utter dominance in both areas. After both teams’ convincing quarter-final wins, a close game was expected, but in the first half New Zealand were in the game about as much as Ireland were last week. Manu Tuilagi’s second-minute try set the tone for the game, and New Zealand never recovered from that moment, going down 19-7, a scoreline which makes the game look far closer than it was.

England’s game plan was clear: control territory through their kicking game, aided by picking Ford and Farrell, and play at a ferocious pace when in the right areas, especially in defence. Ireland were found wanting to try to ‘bully’ New Zealand last week, but that is exactly what England did to huge success. Each member of England’s pack played superbly, and helped England dominate the collision and therefore the gain line.

On the contrary, it never became apparent what New Zealand’s game plan was. Too often were they on the back foot for Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett to be able to pull the strings as they had done in previous games, and they only used the ‘kick pass’ once, when Anton Lienert-Brown was immediately bundled into touch by Jonny May. To use American Football terminology, New Zealand couldn’t score any points ‘on offense’, only managing to capitalise on an overthrown lineout which Ardie Savea only had to catch and fall over the England line. They had no prolonged periods of pressure or regular front football, so the England defence were able to win turnovers, reset, and go again from minute one to eighty.

It is hard to select stand-out England performers, so complete was the team performance, but Maro Itoje was deservedly named man of the match, and the back row ‘kamikaze kids’ of Underhill and Curry were immense, as were Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola, the latter particularly impressive given his limited game time since his return from injury and the amount of carrying he got through.

In the backs, Owen Farrell played the best part of an hour on one leg, and Manu Tuilagi continued his impressive form, especially in defence, producing many good reads and dominant tackles to thwart New Zealand’s attack. It was a sad way for Kieran Read and Steve Hansen to play and coach their last truly competitive fixtures for the All Blacks, but this loss won’t detract from their legacy, it just denied them from further extending it two steps short of a historic three-peat.

The best thing you could say about Wales’s semi-final against South Africa was that it was ‘one for the purists’, but in reality, it wasn’t anything close to the spectacle the first semi-final was for spectators and fans. However, regardless of the excitement of perceived quality of rugby played, the fact remains South Africa have proceeded to the World Cup final in the same way England did, and did not produce anything close to the performance Eddie Jones’ men did.

Both teams made it clear from the start that they were going to rely heavily on a kicking game and try to squeeze the life out of their opposition. In the end, both teams squeezed the life out of the game. The ball was kicked 81 times throughout the game, but the vast majority of kicks were either sliced straight up in the air, or far too long to be able compete, and the game was mostly played between the 10m lines.

Finally, on 57 minutes a barnstorming run from Damian de Allende broke the deadlock of penalty goals, touching down to give South Africa a seven-point lead, and Wales looked out of it, having failed to put South Africa under any pressure in their own 22. However, after Alun-Wyn Jones turned down a kickable penalty to go for the corner, and after choosing to scrum from a penalty five metres out, Josh Adams went over in the corner and Dan Biggar held his nerve to hit the touchline conversion to level the game with ten minutes to play.

The game was anyone’s at this point, and a Handre Pollard penalty from a Welsh breakdown infringement three minutes from time was enough to seal it and send the Boks to a third World Cup final. Wales can be proud of their efforts this World Cup, but it always looked like a being a step too far against South Africa.

Despite having won the last four meetings between the sides, Wales were missing lots of front-line players to injury, either from before or during the tournament, notably Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Anscombe, Cory Hill and Josh Navidi, as well as centres Hadleigh Parkes and Joanthon Davies both playing through injuries. Wales didn’t have the weapons to play with their game plan of choice, and they were never going to be able beat the Springboks in an arm wrestle, which is what the game turned in to.

There’s no doubt that if the England from the semi-finals played the South Africa from the semi-finals, the Webb Ellis Cup will be coming home to Twickenham, but knockout rugby is completely different to the group stages and is an art form rarely played at club level. It is about doing enough to win, and nothing more.

Both teams did that at the weekend. South Africa didn’t try to play an expansive game, they stuck to an arm wrestle and came through. England kicked their goals when they came when, given their forward dominance, they probably could have scored tries from set pieces near the New Zealand line, and indeed were unlucky to have one ruled out just after half time.

The result of the final on Saturday will depend on two things, both related to England. Firstly, if England lose any key players to injury, it will be a massive blow, especially if Owen Farrell isn’t back at 100%. Finally, if England can, whether George Ford starts or not, control territory and play prolonged spells of fast-paced attacking rugby. We saw that South Africa struggled to contain the All Blacks in their opening game, and their team is hugely physical, but they are heavy, and will tire more easily than England if there are made to defend hard and fast. At this point, three days out, it is England’s World Cup to lose.

Image by Geof Wilson via Flickr and Creative Commons

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