And then there were four.
What an exciting weekend of world-class rugby we were just witness to. Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand were all triumphant, and now only one game stands in their way of a spot in the World Cup Final.
An interesting stat is that the four sides also fought it out in the semi-finals back in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. On that occasion, Australia lost to France 24-30 and on the other side, the All-Blacks destroyed Wales 49-6. New Zealand went on to win 29-9 against France in the final yet have not been able to do the same since.
Let’s look at the teams that will apply the war paint this weekend.
Wales has had a tremendous world cup tournament and last Saturday night they took all of the opportunities when they were on offer in opposition to the Irish.
The Welsh defense has been strong throughout and again it was dominant against Ireland. They go into their semi-final clash against the unpredictable French team with a solid x-factor about them with every chance of going the whole way. Players are enjoying the occasion and experience, and coach Gatland has said privately that there is no team that they can’t beat – that’s confidence and we are all seeing that.
If you were to put down a template of what a really good team should look like, that’s what Wales is right this instance, and what a good time to be in that position. Throughout the tournament, the Welsh selectors have picked on form, not loyalty or past performances, and their strategy has so far paid off.
France turned up for the first time in this tournament last week when they took to the pitch against England. They looked business like and played without too much flair and in doing so exposed England for a team that looked like they had no idea.
The French came out firing and matched England up forward and proved too good over the 80 minutes. Will they take that form into this weekends match? I doubt if they even know.
Australia by now have stopped scratching their heads thinking how they won against the Springboks and are getting set for a cross Tasman battle with the All-Blacks.
South Africa did everything they could to win, however the Wallabies were strong and held them off. Referee Bryce Lawrence (currently being damned by the South African and British sports press) let the Wallabies get away with so much and David Pocock took advantage of that – in short, he played the ump well.
The Australian’s finished the match with a three to one tackle count. The Wallabies were dominated everywhere on the park except the breakdown, and that will be ever so important for them this weekend when they play the worlds top team, in a stadium that has been their hoodoo ground since their last win at Eden Park in 1986.
New Zealand defeated the Pumas 33-10, but however comfortable the win looked on the scoreboard, it was different to those watching live as the All Blacks were forced to scramble for the points, scoring the majority of their points in the final 15 minutes of the match. New Zealand looked under pressure at stages as the Argentinians were physical and fronted up.
The All-Blacks can stand back though and say that’s exactly what we needed – they will benefit from that match.
Last weekend was also significant due to Mils Muliaina notching up his 100th test match against Argentina and that is something that didn’t receive the full recognition he and the occasion deserved.
Turning to this weekends semi-finals matches, Wales go head to head against France (7pm AEST Saturday) and then Australia takes on New Zealand (7pm AEST Sunday).
Wales vs. France
Two big questions come to mind straight away.
Can Wales continue their top form and climb to take home ‘Bill’? Was last weekend a once off for France – can they back it up against Wales?
This is set to be a very physical match. The difference between the two is that France is highly unpredictable and an extremely emotional side. Wales, in this world cup, has been incredibly organised and could be too classy for Les Bleus, who if they realise they aren’t in the game could simply fade away.
An area in which Wales could be tested is in the loose forwards. The French loose forwards were very good against England, akin to Wales. Warburton will be a key factor for those in red on Saturday.
Last time they met the Frenchmen were far too good for Wales, prevailing 28-9 and at the same time put an end to Wales’ chance of succeeding in the 2011 six nations.
New Zealand vs. Australia
This clash is every bit of a world cup final, only it has come one week early.
These two nations have great history. Three games stand out for me. Firstly in 2001 at Stadium Australia, also known as the last test match for champion captain John Eales. The teams went into the sheds after 40 minutes 16-9 in favour of the Australian’s. The two powerhouses of world rugby put on a solid performance for the crowd in the second half. The second 40 belonged to the Kiwi’s until a game-winning try by Toutai Kefu close to the hooter sounding sent Eales off in a fairy tale ending.
Again the setting is in Sydney, this time in the year 2000. 109,847 people took in a 39-35 All-Blacks victory. After only 11 minutes in the first half, the All-Blacks held a 24-0 lead in what was an awesome and dominant performance. However, the remaining 29 minutes went to the men in gold as they clawed their way back to even the game. Jonah Lomu would be the difference in the second half claiming the matching winning try.
Who can forget when the Australian’s retained the Bledisloe Cup after Eales kicked the winning goal near games end?
Where do you start? Australia can take the template from their battle with the All-Blacks earlier this year. The Wallabies will look to try to shut out New Zealand’s midfield whereas the Kiwi’s need to at them physically, take on the scrum and get numbers at the break down. The All-Blacks tight forwards need to be solid and hurt Australia.
Cruden is a worry for New Zealand – he isn’t a big guy and likes to take things on (even three large Argentinean men which isn’t the right time to do it). Cruden must play for the team this week and not be an individual – know when to make the plays and what to take on. The other player coming in is Stephen Donald – most New Zealanders hold low disregard for him as a player and Hosea Gear comes in also – he missed out on initial selection.
In the Australian corner, Quade Cooper had an awful match against South Africa and overall, he hasn’t fired to the extent we all know he can. That is the big x-factor in this clash, because if he turns up, then he could be very damaging.
Digby Ioane is a massive threat also and the Wallabies are thankful that he is in their line up. New Zealand will need to mug him quite heavily and lessen his impact on the end result.
The All-Blacks have had a terrible last two weeks when you look at the injuries list. If it was any other side I would rule them out of getting close or even winning the match, however the Kiwi’s are a close-knit group that mould even greater when down a few key personnel.
If the All-Blacks forwards do their job then the backs will thrive off the confidence and positive match play.
This is going to be a great game. The last time these two teams faced each other in a rugby world cup was in the semi-finals – a game the Wallabies were victorious 22-10, largely due to Flatley’s five penalties.
The last time they played Australia defeated New Zealand in a rousing effort to win 25-20 after they possessed a 20-3 lead at the break. It was the Wallabies first win in 19 years against New Zealand in Brisbane. Three weeks before the All-Blacks punish Australia 30-14 in Auckland.
In 1987 Australia played Wales in the playoff for third-place, a match in which the Welsh won by one point (22-21). In 2011, the Wallabies led by James Horwill will in my opinion be position to reverse that result as the two face off against each other in the this years edition of the Rugby World Cup.
Its rugby world cup semi-finals time and mouth-watering battles are set to ignite. Rivalries will once again have another page written. Let the battles begin because Bill is there for the taking.