Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 September 2020

No stopping the All Blacks, Wales v South Africa too close to call: Rugby World Cup 2019 semi-finals predictions

Two-time defending champions New Zealand take on England in the first semi-final in Yokohama followed by Wales against South Africa 24 hours later

And then there were four. The Rugby World Cup semi-finals take place on Saturday and Sunday to determine who will go through to the championship match on November 2.

Two-time defending champions New Zealand take on England in the first semi-final in Yokohama followed by Wales against South Africa 24 hours later.

Below are Steve Luckings' predictions of who will reach the final.

England v New Zealand, Saturday, 12pm UAE

Forget "spy gate", Eddie Jones knows full well it is England who have to come up with covert operations to deny an all-conquering All Blacks side chasing a third-straight Webb Ellis Cup and fourth World Cup overall.

England played arguably their best knockout game of rugby since destroying Frederic Michalak and his French teammates at the 2003 World Cup semi-finals in beating Australia last week.

As predicted, the forwards dominated the Australian pack, with Kyle Sinckler, described by his coach as a "runaway rhino", leading the rampage against Wallabies caught up in England's headlights. Courtney Lawes more than justified his inclusion from the start at the expense of George Kruis, while Tom Curry and Sam Underhill put Australia's fabled, ball-scavenging back-row duo of Michael Hooper and David Pocock in the shade in Oita.

Jonny May got his hands on the ball three times in the opening 40 minutes and scored two tries, while Henry Slade provided the silk in midfield that had been lacking in England's pool matches. Owen Farrell rediscovered his kicking boots, too, nailing all eight off the tee (four conversions, four penalties).

And while the English will rightly be buoyed by their impressive display against Australia, they will have been well advised to avoid watching the All Blacks in their quarter-final against Ireland straight after.

While many (this writer included) have been purring over Steve Hansen making room for two playmakers in Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett, it's easy to forget who the real stars of this seemingly unstoppable machine are.

There are few superlatives that adequately do All Blacks captain Kieran Read justice, to the point where we will just have to start using Superman emojis next to his name. He is a force of nature.

To wear the captain's arm band of New Zealand rugby tasks players with going above and beyond what mere mortals are capable of. Read's brute force and tactical nous are legendary but it's with ball in hand where he really excels.

All of these All Blacks have a sixth sense for a teammate on their shoulder waiting for an offload but the pass Read popped up off the floor for replacement hooker Codie Taylor, despite two Irish defenders rapping every available limb around him, was outrageous.

And what about the man behind him?

Is there a better goal poacher, to use football parlance, than Aaron Smith? The All Blacks No 9 sees gaps where daylight barely penetrates. Smith squeezed over for two close-range tries against Ireland that effectively killed the game in the opening quarter.

Read's go-forward-never-backwards mentality and Smith's sniping will cut England down to size. Having dismissed their chances of a three-peat at the start of the tournament, I'm now willing to go out and buy a hat and eat it.

Prediction: No stopping rampant All Blacks

Wales v South Africa, Sunday, 12pm

When Wales legend JJ Williams said before the tournament that Wales could not win the World Cup with Dan Biggar at fly-half, many were inclined to believe the former British & Irish Lions wing.

The knee injury that ended Gareth Anscombe's tournament before it even started was seen in some quarters as the first and last death knell in Welsh hopes of adding a World Cup to a trophy cabinet already creaking under the weight of a Six Nations and Grand Slam titles this year.

But Biggar is big enough to take criticism on the chin and answer the doubters with his performances on the pitch. A fly-half of substance over style is never a bad thing, especially at this stage of a competition, when nerve is needed every bit as much as skill.

In an age when players must be all things to all men, where giants must be fleet of foot and once wispy-wingers must be able to fireman carry two-times their body weight, the reassuring presence of someone like Biggar in the pivotal role of 10 breeds confidence among teammates.

The last-gasp win over France summed up an indefatigable spirit that courses through the soul of this Wales team. And while the loss of Josh Navidi is a blow, in Justin Tipuric and Aaron Wainwright Wales possess two of the most mobile loose forwards left in the competition.

They will need them at their best if they are to overcome a South Africa that most of us now regard as the world's biggest party poopers after they unceremoniously dumped hosts Japan out of the tournament last week.

Unlike in Brighton four years ago, the Springboks did not allow Japan to control the scrum, with hulking locks Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth at the fore of the front five effort that simply stopped Japan from ever getting go-forward ball to get their running game, well, up and running.

To give an idea of how strong South Africa are you only have to look at their bench. It says something that arguably the best hooker on the planet, Malcolm Marx, was named among the replacements. Marx only came on after 37 minutes of the win over Japan following an injury to Mbongeni Mbonambi. Few teams can – or would even dare – leave a gun player like that out of their starting XV.

They are not short of quality in the backs, either. Damian De Allende has super-model looks and a game to match; Faf de Klerk locks as golden and flowing as one of those trademark passes and wing Makazole Mapimpi might just about be the second fastest thing on two legs in Japan.

The fastest had been stationed on Mapimpi's opposite wing. Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards this week likened Cheslin Kolbe to England's 2003 World Cup-winner Jason Robinson.

But the electric feet so familiar to followers of Dubai Rugby Sevens over the years will not be on show in Yokohama, with Kolbe ruled out with an ankle injury. His place on the right wing goes to Sbu Nkosi, whose middle name – Romeo – is a source of huge embarrassment to the South African quick.

And where tragedy befell Romeo in William Shakespeare's famous play, heartache awaits Nkosi and his fellow Springboks as Wales' indomitable warriors clinch a first Rugby World Cup final spot.

Prediction: A lot closer to call than the other semi-final, but Wales to edge it

Updated: October 24, 2019 10:48 AM

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