The second-to-last weekend of Japan’s time hosting the Rugby World Cup was full of thrilling action, upset wins and tough losses. Before England takes on South Africa next weekend in what is sure to be a classic final showdown, TW writer Matthew Hernon tells us how we got to this point.
England 19-7 New Zealand
It’s been 12 years since England last played in a World Cup final, a game they lost 15-6 to the Springboks. Since then the tournament has been dominated by one nation: The mighty All Blacks, regarded by many as the greatest international sport’s team on the planet. October 6, 2007 was the last time New Zealand lost a World Cup match. On Saturday night at a packed stadium in Yokohama that incredible record finally came to an end thanks to a breathtaking display by an English side who dominated their illustrious opponents from the off.
It’s hard to remember England ever playing as well in a game that really mattered. Even the triumphant 2003 World Cup-winning squad didn’t produce a performance quite like this. Maro Itoje, a colossal figure at second row, was deservedly named Player of the Match, but there were so many contenders amongst his teammates. The Kamikaze Kids: Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were outstanding yet again, Owen Farrell, despite playing much of the game with a dead leg, was inspirational as ever, as was his close friend George Ford, restored to the team after starting from the bench against Australia. Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Courtney Lawes, Kyle Sinckler, it would be easy to go on. There were so many heroic displays from the England players this weekend.
New Zealand, by contrast, looked a shadow of the side that dismantled Ireland the previous week. Uncharacteristically sloppy, they never really got going, though, in truth that was mainly down to the brilliance of England. The team in white dictated the pace of the game, continued to pin the All Blacks back and won pretty much all of the physical battles. Before the game Eddie Jones said, “To beat New Zealand you can’t sit and be a spectator at the show.” They certainly weren’t on Saturday.
England laid down a marker at the beginning by setting up a V-formation as the All Blacks performed the Haka. They then started the game at a ferocious pace, scoring the first try through Tuilagi within two minutes. The expected New Zealand response didn’t come, however, as Jones’ side continued to pour forward. Underhill was correctly denied a second try by TMO as Curry’s run had blocked off two defenders. At half time, the lead was 10-0. To see the All Blacks with a zero by their name at the break is a real rarity (the first time for 28 years at a World Cup), but they would have probably gone into the changing room relieved. It could have been a lot worse.
Once again, it was England who came out on the front foot at the start of the second half. Ben Youngs went over to seemingly extend the lead before TMO disallowed it for a knock-on. A blow for the English, yet they kept coming. Ford, nerveless throughout, made it 13-0 with his second penalty of the night. Victory was in sight, but then came the first big mistake. Jamie George overthrew his line-out straight into the arms of Ardie Savea who bagged a try to give the All Blacks a sniff. That was all they got, though, as two more penalties from Ford put the game beyond the three-time World Champions and England into their fourth final.
South Africa 19-16 Wales
Awaiting England in the final on November 2 in Yokohama will be South Africa after they narrowly defeated Wales 19-16 at Nissan Stadium. Though scrappy at times, it was a tense, enthralling encounter that went to the wire. As expected, the Springboks relied on tactical kicking to get them through. For the neutral, it may not be very exciting to watch but it is effective, and they will prove tough opponents for the English next week.
The nerves could be felt inside the stadium in the opening half with neither side giving an inch. South Africa struck first through the boot of the ever-reliable Handré Pollard. Dan Biggar replied in kind for Wales before two more penalties by Pollard stretched the Springboks lead to six points. The Welsh couldn’t afford to let them get too far in front. Biggar again responded with a big penalty shortly before the interval. 9-6 at the break, this was anyone’s game.
The outside-half’s third successful kick of the match tied the scores early in the second half. It was still poised on a knife-edge, but then South Africa struck. Damian de Allende, one of the Springboks’ best performers, not only on the night but throughout the tournament, powered past Biggar for the first try. Pollard’s conversion made it 16-9. Wales now needed to go for broke. Upping the intensity, they were just a couple of meters from their opponent’s line but couldn’t find a way through. Huge power from both sides, the Welsh were eventually awarded a penalty.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones opted for a scrum. A huge call at a critical phase in the game. It paid off. Jonathan Davies got the ball out to Josh Adams who went over to get Wales back in the game and become the outright top try scorer in the tournament with just two games to go. A superb conversion from Leigh Halfpenny evened the score with 15 minutes left. Both teams knew that one small error or a moment of brilliance could decide it. Substitute Rhys Patchell attempted a drop-goal, but it was well off-target. South Africa retained possession. Replacement Francois Louw then won them a huge penalty at the ruck. Pollard had the chance to ultimately kick for the game. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t disappoint. Wales had nothing left and were once again left to rue what might have been. It was another heart-wrenching semi-final defeat for Warren Gatland’s men.
They will now face New Zealand in the Bronze match in what will be the last game in charge for both of their highly respected coaches. The Springboks, meanwhile, will take on England on Saturday in a repeat of the 2007 final. Back then, Eddie Jones was part of South Africa’s coaching staff as a consultant. This time, he will be attempting to mastermind their downfall. His team will go into the final as favorites following two excellent performances against Australia and the All Blacks. Rassie Erasmus’ men haven’t been quite as impressive, but they have proved incredibly difficult to break down. A very powerful side that is tactically well set-up, they will be happy to go into next week’s encounter as underdogs. Here’s hoping for another thrilling weekend.
Feature image by Richard Heathcote – World Rugby via Getty Images