Rugby World Cup: Semi-final predictions - England v New Zealand; Wales v South Africa

Gareth Jones predicts the outcome of the Rugby World Cup semi-finals
Gareth Jones predicts the outcome of the Rugby World Cup semi-finals

Gareth Jones previews the semi-finals of the Rugby Union World Cup as the northern and southern hemisphere go head-to-head for a place in the final.

The semi-final line-up is as I predicted pre-tournament in my 'route to the final predictions' and that journey has delivered unprecedented drama and incredible, memorable storylines.

It leaves us with another classic rugby tale to come - north versus south - as New Zealand and England and Wales and South Africa will go toe-to-toe.

It is just the third time in World Cup history we've had a northern hemisphere side in both semi-finals and the first time ever two home nations are competing in each. Could we be on the verge of a first ever all northern hemisphere/home nations World Cup final?

Any make up of final is now possible, especially when red cards have proved so prevalent and impactful at this tournament.

So to determine the final two, my analysis must display the same cold ruthlessness that New Zealand demonstrated in their destruction of Ireland.


Summary

SF1: England v New Zealand

Winner: New Zealand

SF2: Wales v South Africa

Winner: Wales

Best bet: Wales to beat South Africa at 12/5

The route to the Rugby World Cup Final so far
The route to the Rugby World Cup Final so far


England v New Zealand

Winner: New Zealand

Where: International Stadium, Yokohama

When: Saturday October 26; KO: 09.00 BST

New Zealand have displayed a new level of ruthlessness in Japan
New Zealand have displayed a new level of ruthlessness in Japan

England are one of only three nations that truly believe they can defeat New Zealand. The other two - Ireland and South Africa - have already been seen off comfortably by the mighty All Blacks in this tournament.

So let's take another route to give us confidence - history. Well, here the Kiwis have won all three World Cup clashes, in the 1991 and 1999 pool stages and knocking England out at the semi-final stage in 1995, when Jonah Lomu literally ran over the English backline.

Okay, so let's look at non World Cup clashes. Gulp, New Zealand have won the past six encounters, with England last tasting victory way back in 2012.

This isn't looking great is it.

But let's consider this, the last meeting in November 2018 was a one-point loss in controversial circumstances. It really should have been an England win and shows the English are the closest they've been to their rivals' level in at least 10 years.

Then look at the 2017 British and Irish Lions Tour, the last time Steve Hansen's side failed to win in consecutive games and a rare time they looked rattled. The Lions won the second Test and drew the third to tie the series. Six of England's players that will start on Saturday started that final Test in Auckland, with another two on the bench that day.

It means this England team do not fear the double World Champions, they are not beaten before kick-off like many. Ireland's players would have felt the same before their quarter-final hammering, but England are a force on the up, not down (like Ireland) and they've built excellently during the whole of 2019, let alone in Japan, and it feels they actually have less pressure on them than the Irish did.

Added to this, New Zealand could be most vulnerable in the semis, as their own weight of history pushes down on them. None of those players want to be known as the squad that lost their firm 12 year grip of the William Webb Ellis trophy. A final defeat could be forgiven by the demanding All Black fans, but a semi-final loss is the worst sin this squad could commit.

Captain Owen Farrell told his England team in the post-match huddle not to get carried away with their victory over Australia
Captain Owen Farrell told his England team in the post-match huddle not to get carried away with their victory over Australia

In 2015 you felt the expectation of becoming the first nation to win back-to-back World Cups limited their performance in the semi-final. They did still win, but only by two points against South Africa and it could have easily been a defeat. You feel England have an advantage as underdogs due to this and if, unlike Ireland, they stay in the fight early on the pressure could tell on the Kiwis.

As I write I'm developing an excitement and belief England will win this, unlike my pre-tournament predictions where I called New Zealand to win out.

So I need to bring myself back into focus and I will stick with my call for the All Blacks to see off England.

The Croatian factor

I liken it to last year's football World Cup, where England progressed to the semi-final and we all got swept away in the excitement that they could go all the way in Russia.

The truth we all knew, but didn't want to admit, was that Gareth Southgate's side hadn't actually played any world class sides in their march to the last four. Once they did fight a true heavyweight they were convincingly knocked out.

While Eddie Jones' England are much closer to becoming world class themselves, the same truth floats over them in Japan. In the pool stages 14 man Argentina were dire and in the quarters, as good as the Red Rose were, Australia were very, very average.

Even against a mediocre Wallabies, England's scrum could not dominate their opponents, they were cut open through the centres and out wide on numerous occasions and two of England's tries came via interceptions from poor Australian handling.

Manu Tuilagi is one of only three players that started England's last win over New Zealand that will start against the Kiwis this Saturday
Manu Tuilagi is one of only three players that started England's last win over New Zealand that will start against the Kiwis this Saturday

Had that been New Zealand, England would have been been knocked out. So Jones' side know they need to be better and they will be, but I don't feel it will be enough, sadly, although I'd love to be wrong.

For England it's not just about them going up the gears, but coping with facing a standard they've not come across in this tournament and a level they've not overcome in at least three years, and arguably not since beating the All Blacks in 2012.

Discipline to cost England

Can you go from beating teams of 5/6 out of 10 quality to overcoming a 10 out of 10 side?

England have yet to be truly tested, when New Zealand stamp on their throat will England fight back or crumble? They've not been forced to go to the dark places Wales have been to get this far. I fear it means when that ultimate pressure is applied Farrell and co could crack, maybe only a bit but that would be enough to end their campaign.

Look at the facts. Against Wales in their Six Nations Grand Slam decider England conceded nine penalties; last November versus South Africa and New Zealand it was 11 and seven infringements respectively. Against the very best England's discipline lets them down.

I expect the set piece to be equal, so it is what happens in the backs. The All Blacks' offloading game and power in the centres and across the breakdown was unplayable against Ireland and is a skill sets and intensity England will not have faced in years. When Australia got this game going they found holes in a defence that contain a rusty Henry Slade.

In 2003 England won the Six Nations Grand Slam and then went and won in New Zealand and Australia before the World Cup. It meant they, their opponents and the world knew England could and would beat anyone.

That's not true as it stands. England haven't beaten the very best in the build up. They've failed to defeat New Zealand in six attempts, where beaten by Wales in the Six Nations and lost a Test series in South Africa in 2018.

As yet England have not delivered against the very best when it matters most. They are capable of changing that fact on Saturday, but for me that is why they will fall short.

Sporting Life will be live blogging both semi-finals on Saturday and Sunday this weekend.


Wales v South Africa

Winner: Wales

Where: International Stadium, Yokohama

When: Sunday October 27; KO: 09.00 BST

Dan Biggar's game control at fly-half will be vital for Wales in the knockout stages
Wales' Dan Biggar will need to be perfect with the boot against South Africa

So Wales are 80 minutes away from their first ever World Cup final appearance. How they've got there no one can work out.

They've been nowhere near their best and should be on the plane home now after their display against France. But they've dug deep, toiled, earned some needed luck and through pure stubbornness have made their second semi-final in eight years and their third in total.

Play like they did against France when they take on South Africa and it won't even be a contest. Like England, a new level of quality and intensity will face them on Sunday and Warren Gatland knows his side must be so much better than their previous five performances.

I tipped Wales pre-tournament to make the final and this was largely based on their almost impenetrable defence, but this has crumbled in Japan. It shocked me that after being ripped open out wide against Australia and Fiji in the pool stages they had failed to reinforce that area of defence against France, as it was so obvious that's where Les Bleu would attack.

With the excellent attacking back three of the Springbok, if Wales are that weak again then the wonderful Kolbe, Le Roux and Mapimpi will have a field day.

Surely the majority of training this week will be dedicated to defence coach Sean Edwards getting that sorted, and if Joanthan Davies returns at outside centre there should be an improvement there.

Wales must not give the excellent South African winger Makazole Mapimpi any room in their semi-final
Wales must not give the excellent South African winger Makazole Mapimpi any room in their semi-final

The other point to make here is that Wales, unlike England, have had to go to some very dark places, dug deep into their soul to find a way out of their troubled periods to secure unlikely wins. They have forgotten how to lose and believe now they can win any match, against anyone, in any circumstance - mentally this is a huge part of rugby. It is what winners England had in 2003 and New Zealand in 2011.

France also felt another mental barrier smashed by Wales. France, because of their style and history made Wales nervous and that showed. Having won their last four matches against South Africa I don't feel they will hold the same fears and doubts and should be mentally free to play their true best game.

I'm wary of double standards here, starting to base Wales' semi with my heart, when the head steered my England call.

So let's add some cold facts.

Kicking game to be rewarded

Wales have only been cut apart when their opponents play an offloading game - a player releasing the ball to a teammate as he is tackled, keeping the play alive, rather than going to ground with it and killing momentum. Against Japan Rassie Erasmus' big outfit offloaded twice, the same number as in their opening defeat to New Zealand.

Australia and France both offloaded 11 times and Fiji seven against Wales and found great success in that tactic. South Africa don't look to have that game in them against the top sides.

Then look at penalties. The Boks conceded eight to the Brave Blossoms and nine versus New Zealand.

So this tells us, when against the best teams and put under the most pressure in this tournament South Africa don't offload and their discipline falters.

With Dan Biggar's quality kicking game, both from hand and from the tee, Wales make teams suffer when they win penalties, and if teams aren't offloading against them their defence remains strong.

Wales have won their last four meeting with South Africa, including last November's 20-11 victory
Wales have won their last four meeting with South Africa, including last November's 20-11 victory

Talking of the kicking game, what was interesting to note was how much Japan kicked on Sunday, going away from their normal game. They delivered an aerial bombardment, with both high up-and-unders and cross-field kicks. With a great kick chase game they put huge pressure on the South African back three and it paid off, regathering possession 15 times from kicks and forcing plenty more mistakes from their opponents under that high ball.

With Biggar, Liam Williams, Josh Adams and George North, Wales, with England, are the best in the world at this tactic. Gatland will have noted with interest how the Springbok struggled in this area and surely Wales will relay on that tactic on Sunday.

Strong Welsh start vital

I also expect Wales to start strongly like they did against Australia. They know they cannot start slowly again, like against France and Fiji, and cannot go behind by two scores to South Africa. That would be game over. So expect an explosive start from Wales and expect an early drop goal attempt from Biggar.

The Springboks have began excellently against New Zealand and Japan in this tournament, but in both matches they failed to convert that pressure into points. In both matches it took them until the 48th minute to pass the 10 point mark - they were made to pay by the Kiwis for that and against a better team than Japan the same would have been said. Last November against England they dominated early but it took them 33 minutes to get to eight points and 68 to hit the 11 point mark.

If Wales hold out early the Springbok normally dip between 15-30 minutes. If Wales can then slowly and consistently build the scoreboard in that time they could squeeze the life out of their opponents.

The stats show the Springboks are at their best just before and after half-time. If Wales can have a 10+ point lead going into the break and hold on to that until 55 minutes then they should see the match out and reach their first final. That's easier said than done, but Wales have proved that nothing is beyond this dogged side now.

Sporting Life will be live blogging both semi-finals on Saturday and Sunday this weekend.

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