As the penultimate weekend of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan approaches, it’s time to get down to business.
England, New Zealand, Wales and South Africa are the four semi-finalists and, with not much between them, both matches are set to go down to the wire.
Here ruck writer Teddy Parker makes his bold predictions for this weekend’s matches.
England vs New Zealand:
Eddie Jones and Steve Hansen’s sides were in unstoppable form in the quarter-finals
with commanding victories over the Australia and Ireland.
Both teams had had a two-week break leading up to their last-eight encounters after typhoon Hagibis made landfall on the Japanese coast. So there will be no advantage for either nation in terms of match fatigue going into this semi-final contest.
In the week Eddie Jones began the war of words early on, stating that the pressure was firmly on the All Blacks who are chasing their third successive World Cup win, “No one thinks we can win, no one thinks we can win. New Zealand talks about them walking towards the pressure. Well this week the pressure’s going to be chasing them
down the street.”
The team that will line up against Jones’s men on Saturday will be a formidable one – with veterans such as Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock starting – who with 241 caps between them, have never lost a Rugby World Cup match.
England’s pack boasts some of the worlds best new talent that are playing in their first Webb Ellis Cup. Kyle Sinckler, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry have been in outstanding form in this tournament, with Curry being named man of the match for his exploits in his side’s quarter-final win.
Curry and Underhill gave the performance of their lives against the Wallabies with thirty-six tackles being made between them. They will need a repeat of this on Saturday against the likes of Kieran Read and Ardie Savea who have dominated the breakdown so far in Japan.
The All Blacks put on a champions display against Ireland, running in seven tries against a nation that entered the tournament ranked as the number one team in the world.
Joe Schmidt’s pack couldn’t match up to the physicality of New Zealand’s tight-five, creating the perfect platform for half-backs Smith and Mo’unga to unleash the All Blacks devastating backline.
We knew going into this match that if Beauden Barrett was to perform, then Ireland would have serious problems. Barrett walked away from the game with the man of the match award and his reputation as the most dangerous back in the world, firmly intact.
Owen Farrell banished the demons of his kicking display with Argentina to give a captains performance against the Wallabies. With eight kicks out of eight completed in his sides 40-16 routing of Australia, he vindicated Eddie Jones decision to play him at fly-half in the quarter-final.
George Ford has been recalled to England’s starting fifteen for this weekends encounter, in what is a risky tactical move by Jones – given the weaknesses in Ford’s defensive game that sides have exploited in the past.
The fly-half was arguably England’s most impressive player in the group stages of this tournament – with his vision in attack and ability to unlock defences with the likes of Tuilagi and Daly outside him. Perhaps this gamble could be a masterstroke from the England coach?
New Zealand have won in fifteen out of the last sixteen meetings between these sides, having never lost to England in a World Cup encounter.
Six players that played in England’s last win against the All Blacks in 2012, will take the field on Saturday. So they will know that victory this weekend is not an impossible task.
Steve Hansen’s men will go into Saturday’s contest as favourites as they chase the unprecedented feat of winning the Webb Ellis trophy three times in succession.
If there is one team in the world who could stop them, then it is England.
An English victory against the All Blacks would forever destroy the current, almost invincible, New Zealand aura and reduce the mythical haka to little more than a fifteen man dance.
But if New Zealand prevail and achieve ‘the big three’, they will forever become immortals of the game and Eddie Jones coaching career will crash and burn with it.
Wales vs South Africa
Prediction: South Africa
This Sunday’s semi-final match-up sees Grand Slam champions Wales go up against the Springboks who have now made the last-four in five out of their seven Webb Ellis Cup appearances.
Wales were rocked on Thursday by the news that star full-back Liam Williams would be unavailable for the rest of the tournament after picking up an ankle injury in training.
With back row Josh Navidi sent home through injury and centre Jonathan Davies not at full fitness, the injury list is looking ominous for the men in red. Wales were ravaged by injury in the group stage back in the 2015 World Cup – playing a big part in their last-eight defeat and it looks like history may be repeating itself once more.
The Springboks last win against Wales was in that quarter-final at Twickenham, in the four matches played since then, Warren Gatland’s side have come out on top. So Wales will be confident that they can beat the Boks and make it to their first-ever World Cup final.
In the weeks leading up to Japan 2019, all of the pre-tournament talk was about South Africa – and how they were peaking at the perfect time to challenge the All Blacks for the Webb Ellis Cup.
Defeat to the All Blacks in their opening game has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Rassie Erasmus and his men – who have been given an easier route to the final and also have managed to slip under the radar of the worlds media hype as they roll on towards yet another World Cup semi-final.
Warren Gatland mischievously said that Wales are punching above their weight even to be in the semi – perversely having said for months that he thought his side could lift the Webb Ellis trophy – but injuries have taken their toll on the Welsh squad and the Boks should be too strong in what is sure to be a tight and enthralling contest.