While for many there will be disappointment that this semi-final weekend sees no participants from the Northern Hemisphere, few can deny that the two match-ups on offer have set the stage for an epic showdown between the four dominant powers of Southern Hemisphere rugby. A clash between South Africa’s Springboks and New Zealand’s All Blacks is always something to relish and on the World Cup stage it takes on monumental proportions. Meanwhile, Australia who have looked assured throughout the tournament take on a Pumas side that is playing some of the best rugby of this World Cup. International Rugby doesn’t get much better than this, and no matter who you have been supporting this past four weeks, I doubt very much that you haven’t picked your team for this weekend and will be cheering them on just as hard as if they were your own team!
South Africa vs New Zealand
Saturday, October 24th
Any match between these two rugby giants always has a certain aura to it and tomorrow’s match on the world’s biggest stage will be no exception. As International Rugby’s greatest rivalry gets set to play out in front of an audience of millions around the world, you can only imagine the kind of pressure the players from the two teams must be feeling. It is going to be big, powerful, bruising and above all a fantastic spectacle.
South Africa come into this match as the underdogs based on their route to the semi-finals and their hit and miss form of the last two years. One day brilliant, the next a shadow of the team they could be, predicting a Springbok performance has become a real challenge. They started this tournament with one of the biggest humiliations in South African rugby history by losing to Japan. The way South Africa have regrouped since that match and built steadily to this point has shown both enormous depth and character, while Fourie du Preez’s quiet but assured leadership has more than compensated for the loss of talismanic Captain Jean de Villiers. There has been the perfect mix of youth and experience in this team, with the battle hardened heads of Du Preez, Du Plessis, Habana and Burger providing the leadership to the rising talents of De Allende, Kriel, Pollard, De Jager and Etzebeth. Add into the mix the power of Duane Vermeulen, Tendai Mtawarira and JP Pietersen and this is a powerhouse team. However, despite this extraordinary depth of talent and experience, against quality opposition South Africa have often looked laboured in this tournament and if they are to beat New Zealand on Saturday it will require an effort akin to their famous victory over the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup – in short they are going to have to dig deep – very deep!
New Zealand on the other hand look much as they have throughout the four years since they last lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in Auckland in 2011 – unstoppable! Is this the greatest All Black team of all time, if not the greatest rugby team of all time? I personally think that while they may appear superhuman at times and as good as they are, at the end of the day they too are mere mortals and as such can be beaten. It will take a very special and quite extraordinary side to do it but it can be done. There have been times in the last two years, however fleeting where New Zealand have looked vulnerable. Furthermore, one cannot deny that apart from the quarter-final match against France, they have never quite looked like the all-conquering black machine we saw immediately after the 2011 World Cup. If you ask me the only time New Zealand has really been tested in this tournament is in their opening match against Argentina where they looked decidedly vulnerable. In all the matches since then their opposition has been less than top drawer allowing them to essentially cruise to the semi-finals unlike the battle tested South Africans. Therefore it is hard for me to really estimate how good this All Black side actually is. While you cannot deny that they were truly spectacular last weekend against the French, let’s be honest the French hardly tested them. It has been a long time since that opening game against the Pumas and you can be sure that Coach Steve Hansen and his team have analysed that game to death to the point where the frailties seen in that match have surely been addressed. New Zealand are highly unlikely to be suffering from any kind of complacency especially going into a match against their greatest rivals, but you can’t deny that they have only had to dig deep once so far in this tournament and regardless of their extraordinary skill levels tomorrow will still be the sternest of tests.
In the battle of the forwards, I am giving South Africa a slight edge. I think the combined experience of Bismarck Du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira alongside the raw talent and youth of Francois Malherbe will have the better of the Moody, Coles and Franks platform for New Zealand. Having said that though, Dane Coles defies all logic for New Zealand in his role as hooker as how many times have we seen this extraordinary athlete run almost the full length of a rugby pitch to score a try? If the scrum breaks down allowing Coles to pop out into the loose anywhere South Africa are going to have to pull out all the stops to contain him. Nevertheless when it comes to lineout time, Du Plessis has been more reliable for South Africa than Coles. A fascinating contest awaits between these two. In the back row, the clash between the raw physicality of South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager against the seasoned experience of New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick will be intense, with every lineout throw being a massive contest. However, based on their passion and energy levels, provided they can keep their discipline I am giving the South African duo the edge here. There’s little difference in terms of flankers between the two, with South Africa’s Schalk Burger up against New Zealand’s legendary Richie McCaw, while Francois Louw does battle with seasoned All Black campaigner Jerome Kaino, and given the pedigree of the Kiwis I am just giving the All Black pair the edge here. Lastly at number eight, there is little to choose between South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen and New Zealand’s Kieran Reid. With Vermeulen still just returning to form after a long layoff from injury I am giving this battle to Reid who is rediscovering some of the best form of his career in this tournament.
The half back battle will be fascinating. South Africa’s Fourie du Preez and New Zealand’s Aaron Smith are two of the world’s best. Du Preez may have the better brain but the sheer energy and pace of Aaron Smith gives him an edge that I feel Du Preez lacks. Meanwhile youth meets experience in the battle between Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard and his All Black counterpart Dan Carter. Pollard’s composure under pressure has gotten better with every outing for the Springboks but it simply cannot match up to the genius and experience of Dan Carter who has suddenly found some of the best form of his playing career as he plays his last World Cup for the Men in Black.
In the backs, once more it is an epic battle between youthful raw talent and one of the most experienced centre pairings in International rugby. There are few if any who can touch New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith but they have looked vulnerable under pressure a few times this year, especially Smith. South Africa’s Damien De Allende and Jesse Kriel were a revelation in this year’s Rugby Championship but they are going to have to temper their raw talent and youthful enthusiasm if they are to both attack and defend effectively against their New Zealand counterparts. On the wings, I can’t help feeling that New Zealand’s Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea are simply too much of a handful for Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen. South Africa’s speedster Habana will have his work cut out for him trying to contain the dancing feet of Milner-Skudder to the point where I doubt he’ll get much opportunity to run the ball himself. Meanwhile JP Pietersen will have his hands full trying to defend against New Zealand’s second coming Jonah Lomu in the shape of Julian Savea. Lastly, Ben Smith at fullback for New Zealand is simply in a class of his own, and sadly I can’t help feeling that the form that South Africa’s Willie le Roux is capable of will still continue to elude him in this match, especially under such enormous pressure.
With both benches packing some serious heavyweights capable of changing a game in the last quarter, the use of the reserve bench will be very interesting as the match unfolds. Both sides have the ability to instantly change the momentum of the game through their bench as New Zealand wait for the right moment to throw the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Beauden Barrett into the mix, while South Africa have the exciting prospects of Jan Serfontein and Mr. Reliable under pressure, Pat Lambie.
This is going to be an incredible match and one hopefully that we will all be talking about for many years to come. While it is a real challenge to call it, I just can’t help feeling that New Zealand at the end of the day are just that more of a complete and versatile team than South Africa. Therefore, New Zealand by five with the sparks flying for the full eighty minutes!
Argentina vs Australia
Sunday, October 25th
Having watched Argentina’s breathtaking performance against Ireland last week, this one is easy to call if I were to go with my heart. If Argentina bring anything like the finesse and intensity they showed in Cardiff to this match then the game should be theirs. However, the head says that Australia simply has too much experience and overall ability to do anything other than emerge the narrow victors. A huge game awaits and one which is almost impossible to call – but a spectacle is surely on the cards whatever happens.
Australia have looked exceptionally solid this World Cup and the only time where they really looked like buckling under pressure was last Sunday against Scotland. Once more restored to full strength for this match they will be very hard to beat and it is unlikely that the chinks in the Australian armor so evident last Sunday will be so easy to spot this Sunday. Big question marks remain however around the fitness of superstars fullback Israel Folau and number eight David Pocock. If fully fit and able to go the distance they, especially Pocock, will be unstoppable and may well swing the entire game firmly in favour of the Wallabies. If not however, then the Pumas will know they have some extra inroads into what has been for the most part a stellar Australian defence. Although the Australian scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, you still have to wonder if it can really match up to the tank engine that is the one of the Pumas key platforms.
For Argentina they have played some truly spectacular rugby this tournament and are very much a complete side. Powerful up front but now blessed with a back line that has speed and agility, and all linked together through a half back partnership that has a composure and vision which seems almost unshakeable, Argentina is probably fielding their greatest team in a proud rugby history. As someone who was fortunate enough to be in Cardiff last Sunday, I was mesmerized by the almost effortless finesse that the Pumas were able to apply to a clinical dismantling of a spirited Irish side. If both teams play the way they have so far in this tournament this is going to be one hell of a semi-final and as close as they get.
Up front, I can’t help feeling that the front row of Marcos Ayerza, Agustin Creevy and Ramiro Herrera is far superior to their Australian opposition in James Slipper, Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu. Focused and increasingly better disciplined Argentina should have the edge here, with Creevy in his role as Captain providing enormous inspiration to his teammates. In the back row it should be a fairly equal battle between Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas for Australia and Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti for the Pumas. Both sets of back rows however are prone to lapses in discipline and the Argentinians slightly more so. If they can keep their discipline though I’ll give this contest to Argentina but if not then hands down the Wallabies should edge it. In the flankers, Pablo Matera for Argentina and Scott Fardy for the Wallabies will provide us with an epic tussle, but on a battle of strength versus skill I’ll give Fardy the edge here. Meanwhile one of the game’s greatest troublemakers and spoilers at the breakdown in the form of Australia’s Michael Hooper should get the better of his opposite Puma number Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. Lastly at number eight provided he is fully fit the incomparable David Pocock should get the better of his opposite number Leonardo Senatore even though the Argentinian has shown a phenomenal work rate all tournament.
In the battle of the half backs, despite having considerably more experience Australia are in a 50/50 battle with the Pumas here. Will Genia’s experience for the Wallabies should see him edge out his Argentinian counterpart Martin Landajo, but in the battle of the flyhalves I am giving Argentina the benefit of the doubt. As good as he is for Australia Bernard Foley seems more easily rattled than Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez whose effortless performance against Ireland last week gets him the nod from me in this contest.
In the backs, Argentina have plenty of promise and as I have been saying all along winger Santiago Cordero has been a real revelation. Matt Giteau’s experience and the raw physicality of Tevita Kuridrani may just give Australia the edge in the battle of the centres, but they don’t call Argentina’s Juan Martin Hernandez “the Magician” for nothing and Marcelo Bosch is dangerous with the boot from anywhere on the pitch. On the wings Santiago Cordero should get the edge over Australia’s Drew Mitchell. The little Argentine winger has the same kind of dancing feet as New Zealand’s Nehe Milner-Skudder which is proving almost impossible to stop coupled with some spectacular vision in terms of how the game is unfolding around him. On the other wing we’ll see the battle between Argentina’s Juan Imhoff versus probably one of the most experienced and competent wingers in the world in the shape of Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper. The flair of Argentina’s hat trick king may ultimately not be enough to outdo the experience and sheer talent of Ashley-Cooper. Lastly at fullback, Israel Folau if he is fit and not put under relentless pressure and allowed more of an attacking than defensive role is one of the most dangerous players in the world and should easily get the better of Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet, despite the latter’s diminutive size dragging three Irish defenders across the try line last Sunday in Cardiff.
There are game changers aplenty on both team’s benches, though if Kurtley Beale shows the kind of form we have seen recently from him for Australia he could end up being the ultimate game breaker. In short this is going to be a thrilling and closely fought contest. Argentina will be emotionally charged for this in no uncertain terms, and it remains to be seen if the X-factor of their passion combined with a dazzling set of skills and crushing forward power will be enough to see off a solid and experienced Australian challenge. As I said at the beginning, my heart says Argentina but my head is saying Australia. Therefore as a result in the closest of games, I’m just giving it to Australia by two!