Tony Calvin previews the Rugby World Cup semi-finals and thinks there's value in backing Wales in the first half against South Africa... in the first half at least.
Recommended bets: Rugby World Cup semi-finals
For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, visit our transparent tipping record
Sporting Life will be live blogging both semi-finals on Saturday and Sunday this weekend.
Wales v South Africa
I was a bit taken aback when seeing that Wales had beaten South Africa on the last four occasions they have met – it’s a fact that appears to have passed me by – and they could quite easily have been coming here looking for a seventh successive victory.
Because they also beat the Boks 12-6 in Cardiff in 2014 and only a Fourie Du Preez 75th-minute try saw them edged out of the World Cup 23-19 at the quarter-final stage at Twickenham four years ago.
So if you put a lot of store in head-to-head records then Wales, who won their most recent meeting 20-11 in Cardiff in November, are the team to back at 3/1 and with a nine-point start in a couple of places (the general line is eight).
However, you suspect that the 2019 version of South Africa is a very different beast - quite literally.
The sheer size and power of the Springbok eight was a sight to behold in the second-half of their 26-3 defeat of Japan on Sunday.
The hosts hadn’t yielded to anyone before the South African pack got their hands on them, and they were brutalised in the final 40 minutes in the set-piece and up close and personal, with Faf De Klerk’s try coming at the end of a 50-odd metre rolling maul for the ages.
And one that took ages.
It is quite clear that they aren’t going wide unless it is absolutely necessary, or the game has been won, and they are making no apologies for playing a possession-based, kicking game and relying on their all-consuming defence to force mistakes and penalties in the opposition half.
It is very frustrating to watch, given the outstanding talent they have out wide, but they will certainly have to kick better than they have been to date against Wales. That game plan could quickly turn into a weakness.
And, let’s face it, they have a World Cup-ending accident waiting to happen with Willie Le Roux at full-back.
I said before the tournament that he was the one glaring weakness in the Springbok side – other than adequate back-up to Handre Pollard at 10 - and nothing he has done so far has changed my mind.
Indeed, his performances have been pretty dire as he has added in an inability to catch to go alongside his unwillingness to tackle.
I suspect Wales will be looking to have him looking skywards and bang in front of him, with someone bearing down on him in attack and defence, at every conceivable opportunity.
It was quite amusing to hear Shaun Edwards talking up South Africa’s threat out wide earlier in the week, as it was shades of 1991 for me.
Back then, England were lulled into ditching their forward-orientated game against Australia in the final and it cost them dear. Don’t expect Rassie Erasmus’ gargantuan outfit to be getting any ideas above their pre-planned stations on Sunday, and the loss of the injured Cheslin Kolbe robs them of their unpredictability and dazzle out wide.
My gut instinct was to get with Wales with a nine-point start here – though, again, they haven’t named their side yet - but they were very fortunate to see off France 20-19 last week and that was not the first time they haven’t convinced in this tournament.
France, as they so often do, came screaming out of the blocks and an uncommonly porous Welsh defence (and all-round poor display) helped them ease to a 19-10 lead at half-time, and that score line didn’t do their superiority justice one iota. It could easily have been doubled.
The fact that France didn’t score again after the 31st minute and had a man sent off early in the second-half, and Wales still needed a highly dubious try awarded with five minutes to go – in fact it wasn’t dubious, the ball clearly went forward – to hang on for a point win tells you how far off their game they were.
Of course, just because a team plays poorly one week doesn’t mean they will do so the next – just as sides who have excelled probably won’t hit the same heights seven days later, too – and that may be doubly true of Wales after arch-grumpsters Warren Gatland and Edwards have pointed out a few home truths.
But their pack will have to have the game of their lives to halt the opposition eight – and the Springboks' bench of six forwards and two backs must be one of the biggest and heaviest ever assembled - and the loss of Josh Navidi is a really big blow to their rear guard action.
Once again, I find the handicap line of eight and nine pretty hard to call, but I expect to see Wales attack South Africa in the loose and on the flanks and they could have some early success before they are reined in, Japan-style.
Indeed, in their last seven meetings, Wales have led at half-time on six occasions and have been drawing on the other – the interval leads have been 3-0-1-6-11-11-11 – so Wales-South Africa half-time, full-time (6/1 in a few places) is a runner, as is Wales +4 at 10/11 on the first-half handicap (generally available).
I am going to go with the half-time handicap bet. I also think the 2/1 about there being a drop goal in the match is reasonably enticing, but I will just have the one play.
Buckle up for a great weekend of rugby.
England v New Zealand
Two of the biggest beasts in the rugby jungle meet in the first World Cup semi-final on Saturday morning, and both come into the winner-takes-all clash on the back of impressive victories last weekend.
Before we kick on, both semi-finals are played in Yokohama, where the weather site I used predicts torrential rain on Friday (I am talking 90mm), but a dry weekend. So keep 'em peeled on that front.
New Zealand destroyed Ireland 46-14 after putting in one of their complete and dominant performances they can occasionally throw in against fellow top-tier sides.
Think Australia (36-0) in August, or South Africa (57-0) in 2017, and that display against Ireland probably bettered them both.
England, too, showed an impressive sureness and composure after being clawed back to 17-16 early in the second-half by the Wallabies, eventually running out 40-16 winners.
I definitely think England were flattered a touch by that score line, as Australia played some headless, and clueless, rugby at times, and made their job a lot easier.
But while Ireland did, surprisingly, give the All Blacks some trouble at scrum-time and got some late try-scoring change out of them from close range, New Zealand were as near to clinical rugby excellence as we have seen in recent years, especially in the first-half.
The issue is whether they can back up that level of performance.
If you think they can reproduce that speed and accuracy, then you are only going one way with your betting here, and that is with New Zealand at 2/5 outright and with them to cover the seven-point handicap.
You could have reasonably expected the layers to over-react to the Ireland game, but they haven’t gone that far overboard at all.
And, with Scott Barrett coming in for Sam Kane at six, they are going to sacrifice some speed around the park and to the breakdown and target the England line-out again, too, an area where they had a lot of joy last year.
A stark, and possibly overly-simplistic, reading of the recent head-to-heads between these sides show the task England face.
Some may find what follows a touch boring but bear with me. It may be worth it, he said, hopefully.
New Zealand have not lost in this tournament since 2007 and have won eight of their last nine matches against England since 2009 – I took the view that is the most relevant cut-off point – with the only reverse being a 38-21 defeat in December 2012 at Twickenham.
By the same token, their margins of victory in those games read 13-10-8-5-1-23-3-1, so it is clear that only a close call from the referee or a mistake or missed tackle generally separates them much of the time.
Indeed, only the most marginal of forward passes saw England lose 16-15 at Twickenham in November, their first meeting since the autumn of 2014.
Dig down a bit deeper, and there could be a betting angle, though.
England went in 15-10 up at half-time in November (and the score line was 15-0 after 38 minutes), and they have generally been quick-starters against the Kiwis, with their freshness of physicality – and England, alongside South Africa, are a huge, stifling outfit, as Ireland found out in Dublin earlier in the year - coming to the fore.
They also led 14-11 at half-time in their previous encounter.
The only major anomaly to a relatively close opening half was at Hamilton in 2014 when the All Blacks went in 29-6 up (though there have been leads of 14 to New Zealand and 12 to England), but Eddie Jones' men led 10-6 at the break in Dunedin a week earlier in 2014 and were drawing 9-9 after 40 minutes in the first of that three-Test series.
Indeed, it was 6-6 when they turned around when they met in 2009, too (and it was the same score line in England’s 15-13 win in New Zealand in 2003).
So in those last nine meetings, England have been leading four times at half-time, and were drawing twice.
Say it quietly, especially after what New Zealand did early doors to Ireland last week, but I can see a very physical and brutal, and static, opening and a draw at half-time is over-priced at 14/1 (General) as a result, as are the odds on England-NZ half-time/full-time double-result at 6/1 (Boylesports).
The generally available 11/2 on the HT-FT bet is also acceptable.
And if you want to drill down even further, only an Owen Farrell penalty on the stroke of 40 minutes saw England go in 14-11 ahead in 2014.
If you manage to stick it up to New Zealand up front and close them down – and England are fully equipped to do that - then they are just as slow to get into their stride as any other international outfit.
The Scots held them 3-3 at the break at Murrayfield in 2017, and France actually led them 11-8 at the turn in Auckland last year, before capitulating to a 52-11 loss.
And it was only Johnny Sexton’s 39th-minute penalty that saw his side lead 9-6 en route to their 16-9 win in Dublin last year.
I also think the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017 is very pertinent, too.
New Zealand went in leading 12-6 and 13-8 after very tight starts, and the other Test saw a 9-9 draw at the interval.
A tight opening 40 minutes, with New Zealand edging home thereafter – and the selection of Barrett clearly underlines that they are sensing a slower, heavy-duty, set-piece game - look like the best betting angles into the match to me. The 'stats' back them up, anyway.
England have just announced their side and no real surprises there, with George Ford recalled at fly-half, with Farrell reverting to 12.
Sporting Life will be live blogging both semi-finals on Saturday and Sunday this weekend.
Posted at 0935 BST on 24/10/19.