Three out of the four quarter-finals last weekend ended up with a more one-sided score than expected, and despite picking all 4 winners, I didn’t manage a single margin point.
This weekend, we have two cracking semi-final ties to look forward to, with England facing New Zealand and Wales taking on South Africa. The two southern hemisphere teams are favourites to make the final, but can England or Wales make an impact?
Here are my predictions for this weekend’s Rugby World Cup semi-finals.
England v New Zealand
Both teams were comfortable winners of their quarter-finals last weekend, but I’m not actually sure how much to read into the results because with respect to Australia and Ireland, the opposition in both games performed relatively poorly. The All Blacks looked sublime, whilst England appeared in control throughout and you just wonder if they have another gear or two that we haven’t yet seen in this tournament.
The All Blacks’ selection of Scott Barrett at blindside flanker has surprised me, with Steve Hansen potentially spotting a weakness at England’s lineout that they’ll look to target, but it may give England an edge at the breakdown where Tom Curry and Sam Underhill will look to frustrate the All Black attack.
England have been kicking the ball a lot, usually playing with less possession than their opponents, and a lot will depend on their accuracy in this match. Their defence is outstanding, and they should stand strong in structured play with relatively slow ball for New Zealand – but if they kick poorly and gift New Zealand easy possession in open spaces, they could be vulnerable to a deadly attacking game feeding off quick ball.
Eddie Jones’ team will also need to bring the power game that blew away Ireland twice this year, and that we saw glimpses of at Twickenham against Wales. That’s not easy for any team to withstand, but we don’t always see it consistently, and Billy Vunipola – a key player in terms of that power – has been slightly off-colour in this tournament so far. If Billy turns up, if the Undercurry combination is effective at the breakdown, if Owen Farrell and George Ford kick accurately, if nobody gets sent off, then England have a chance – but that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and England just haven’t been consistent enough to expect it all to come together when it matters most.
New Zealand by 5
Wales v South Africa
Wales are very lucky to still be in the tournament, playing poorly against France and coming from behind to steal a win at the end after Sébastien Vahaamahina had been sent off and with a slightly dubious-looking forward pass allowed for the winning try. However, that’s the thing about Wales at the moment – they just keep winning and they might well do so on Sunday.
Particularly as the Springbok performance was hardly flawless against Japan, profligate in attack in the first-half before pulling away in the second. South Africa have been poor at taking their chances, particularly early on in matches against New Zealand and Japan where they started strongly, and as the tournament progresses, chances become fewer and the Welsh defence doesn’t give much away.
The two teams are fairly similar in style and you know what you’re going to get – a strong set piece, ferocious defence and quite a lot of kicking. The Springbok set piece is likely to have the edge particularly at the lineout, but Warren Gatland will know this and prepare a suitable gameplan accordingly.
With Cheslin Kolbe out injured, and Willie Le Roux out of form, I expect to see Dan Biggar bombarding the Springbok back three looking to force mistakes and regain possession in South African territory. Jonathan Davies is fit to play and returns to the midfield, and he will orchestrate a much more effective defence than Wales managed against France, and I suspect South Africa will struggle to break them down. But Liam Williams is out as is Josh Navidi, who has been a star for Wales and they will both be sorely missed, and that is tipping me slightly in favour of South Africa.
South Africa by 3