The semi finals did not disappoint. The four best teams in the world hammered out a cracking couple of games. Each was very different, but equally engrossing in their own right. Here is a brief look at the crucial areas where the games were won and lost.
England v New Zealand
Yes, the often-maligned scrum half was crucial to England’s famous win. He may not have hit the headlines with anything particularly flashy, but the pace of the game was entirely dictated by him and his relationship with George Ford. He used his forward runners effectively and always chose the right pass. In addition, he temporarily slowed the game down when it was needed in order to realign the attack, but tried to keep the relentless pace whenever possible. Kept the defence honest as well, which was demonstrated by his disallowed try. It is no surprise that England’s better performances in recent times have coincided with his better days. Let’s hope he hits the ground running next week again.
Steve Hansen’s selections
It is a shame that the best coach of the last ten years got it wrong on his last (properly competitive) game in charge. His win ratio and 2015 World Cup will live with him forever, but so will a few key selections for that game. Not having Sam Cane in from the start enabled England to play with the speed off the ground that they did and turnovers came remarkably easily. Too much rested on Ardie Savea when England had at least three breakdown nuisances in their ranks. To target England’s line-out never really seemed like a game-winning idea – they’ve had their off days and lose the occasional one, but it was hardly an area of weakness.
Secondly, whilst the shift of Beauden Barrett to fullback has seemed like a good idea so far, the flaws were exposed ruthlessly on Saturday. The idea was to give him that extra space to work with and to get another great player in Richie Mo’unga. Unfortunately, with the quality kick-chase options that England had, Barrett was never really able to get his hands on the ball in any real space. The fact he was getting his hands on the ball less frequently effectively nullified the ability of the team to unlock defences. Mo’unga just didn’t seem to cope with the defensive pressure that came upon him again and again.
Wales v South Africa
Trust in the game-plan
South Africa under Rassie Erasmus are a different beast. He has identified the qualities of his players and devised a very simple game-plan to make full use of them. They are absolutely massive so he makes them run at the opposition hard (something Dan Biggar in particular couldn’t handle) and collide with aplomb in defence. On the rare occasions they do shift the ball, they keep it simple and use their fast men to run like gazelles into space until they get tackled, when they reset. Lastly, they chase kicks quite well – even when the kicks aren’t the best.
It may have been a little dull to watch in the first half, but South Africa were playing in the right places generally and were able to occasionally regather possession to put Wales under the cosh. When that happened, the Welsh tended to give away penalties or continue going backwards. Simple, but only effective if all the players buy in without deviation. South Africa do and whilst they continue to do so, they will be a tough nut to crack.
Identification of weaknesses
Or lack thereof…
Sunday’s game could very easily have gone either way because it was so even in almost all facets of the game. Wales seemed to have South Africa reeling a little bit with ten minutes to go, but they could have been out of sight earlier if they recognised where they were getting the most change and had the minerals to back themselves to go for it. Where? The wide channels. Wales were a completely different side this week with Jonathan Davies in the 13 shirt. His recognition of space and the timings of his pass caught the Boks off guard almost every time he had the ball.
Josh Adams is a predator and George North was having his best game for a long time before he went off. They were making ground every single time they went further than a couple of passes out. Why did they keep it quite so tight when they had so much of the ball in threatening positions during the second half? Only the Welsh players can answer that, but I am convinced they’d have won if they’d used that weapon even a few times more than they did.
Where do you think the games were decided? How will the final and the third place match be decided next week?
by Joe Large