Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

All Blacks still the team to beat as Rugby World Cup reaches semi-final stage

We take a look at the last four still standing in Japan: New Zealand, South Africa, Wales and England

New Zealand's Aaron Smith celebrates his first try against Ireland on Saturday.Getty
New Zealand's Aaron Smith celebrates his first try against Ireland on Saturday.Getty

New Zealand and England were convincing winners in their respective quarter-finals at the Rugby World Cup in Japan – but only one will advance to the final, as they meet next Saturday.

Wales avenged their semi-final loss to France in 2011 by profiting from a mindless red card for Sebastien Vahaamahina in a comeback win in their quarter-final.

Next Sunday they will face a South Africa side against whom they have had plenty of joy in recent years.

We rank the prospects of the four sides still standing.

1 New Zealand

It seems bizarre to think New Zealand entered this tournament with question marks hanging over them.

They had a new half-back pairing. They had shifted a two-time world player of the year from his established position. And – for once – they had not won the Rugby Championship.

Their form since suggests they were playing everyone all along. Wins against South Africa on the opening weekend, and Ireland on Saturday, show it is unwise to poke the All Black beast.

South Africa beat them to the Rugby Championship, while Ireland’s two wins over them in the time since the last World Cup have inspired New Zealand to new levels of excellence.

With a three-peat in the offing, they do not need any extra inspiration. But Eddie Jones’ claim that he would prefer his England side to play the All Blacks rather than Ireland in the semi-final will not have gone unnoticed.

World ranked 1

Recent record v England WWWWW

South Africa lock Eben Etzebeth tackles Koo Ji-won of Japan during the Springboks' quarter-final victory on Sunday. AFP
South Africa lock Eben Etzebeth tackles Koo Ji-won of Japan during the Springboks' quarter-final victory on Sunday. AFP

2 South Africa

It is fair to say the majority of the rugby-loving public beyond South Africa were willing Japan to extend their fairy-tale run beyond the quarter-final stage.

The Springboks were happy to play spoilsport, though, as they crushed the host nation 26-3 in Tokyo.

For all the talk about the new-age rugby Japan had been playing, the loss proved the old rugby adage about a good big ’un always being better than a good little ’un.

Japan were overpowered by a South African pack peopled by behemoths like Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Duane Vermeulen.

While a Boks v All Blacks final might seem likely, South Africa’s recent record against their last-four opponents Wales is poor.

Their last win against them came five Tests ago. Tellingly, that was when the stakes were at their highest, as the Boks downed the Welsh 23-19 in the last World Cup.

World ranked 4

Recent record v Wales LLLLW

Aaron Wainwright of Wales, left, is elbowed in the head by France's Sebastien Vahaamahina during the quarter-final clash on Sunday. Reuters
Aaron Wainwright of Wales, left, is elbowed in the head by France's Sebastien Vahaamahina during the quarter-final clash on Sunday. Reuters

3 Wales

Wales will be grateful they do not draw pictures on the scoreboard after making heavy weather of beating France.

They might not have achieved it had it not been for Vahaamahina’s vicious elbow on Aaron Wainwright in the 49th minute. Les Bleus were 19-10 ahead at the time. They failed to score another point thereafter.

What happens next will be intriguing. Wales have really only played one strong half of rugby so far in the tournament – which got them the vital win over Australia in pool play.

If they have not been in sync as yet, then at least they will be battle-hardened when they face the Boks.

Wales won arguably the toughest group in the tournament and showed courage in beating France.

World ranked 3

Recent record v South Africa WWWWL

England's in-form duo Tom Curry, right, and Sam Underhill after their quarter-final win over Australia on Saturday. Getty
England's in-form duo Tom Curry, right, and Sam Underhill after their quarter-final win over Australia on Saturday. Getty

4 England

It was difficult to know what to make of England after the pool phase. They comfortably won the two matches they were supposed to win easily – against Tonga and United States.

They easily dispatched an Argentina side who played most of match with only 14 men. And then their final match against France was cancelled because of Typhoon Hagibis.

Are they undercooked? Not judged on the demolition of Australia. They are purring.

And, in the form of back-rowers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, have two fine discoveries in positions that were always said to be England’s weakness.

They do, though, face the most daunting prospect possible next up. It is seven years since they last beat New Zealand – the Manu Tuilagi inspired classic at Twickenham – although they did only faced each other once in four years after 2014.

World ranked 2

Recent record v New Zealand LLLLL

Updated: October 21, 2019 08:37 AM

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