Sunday, December 10, 2023

Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t miss the Rugby World Cup semi-finals

France is barely recovering from the hangover which followed the elimination of Fabien Galthié’s men on Sunday evening (28-29 defeat against South Africa). The other teams continue on their way and keep their dream of world title intact. The two posters for the semi-finals, South Africa – England and New Zealand – Argentina, are everywhere announced as unbalanced. However, there are reasons to believe that they have surprises in store for us, beautiful games and historic moments. Here are good reasons not to miss these semi-finals:

England can compete with South Africa

The Springboks eliminated France, favorite for their World Cup, for a cruel point last Sunday (29-28). They had a solid match, taking advantage of every flaw of the Blues. But they also had success on rebounds of aerial balls, like on their second try, and played more restrictive rugby than the French, leaving possession and occupation to their opponent. The South Africans are confident of their strength, but could come up against the limits of their tactical scheme if England find the defensive defense and negotiate aerial balls well.

However, England has precisely the weapons to embarrass the Springboks. With Owen Farrell and George Ford, they have players gifted in the kicking game, to compete with Faf de Klerk especially in the occupation game, and to pass penalties which South Africa will not succeed if Mannie Libbok is still preferred to Handré Pollard. They have a solid forward pack and an up-to-date bench, which France lacked. With Jonny May and the great Freddie Steward, they especially have imperial backs on aerial balls. The English could make extensive use of the kicking game, avoid sequences of possession that are too long and favor an avoidance game to take the South Africans out of their comfort zone. And maybe beat them, thanks to their infallible scorers.

We will inevitably be entitled to two spectacular matches

The quarter-finals were generous in points scored and tries, with scores close but very high. We can expect the same thing from the semi-finals: firstly because the protagonists are the same, but also because the statistics predict it. With 39 points on average, World Cup semi-finals are historically more prolific than finals, where only 33 points are scored on average. And contrary to what one might believe, the semi-finals are just as tight as the finals: 11 points difference on average between the two teams, exactly like the finals.

On Friday, the Argentinians will have nothing to lose and will push hard to try to overwhelm the New Zealanders who will inevitably score several tries. And if England will undoubtedly have an interest in avoiding too head-on a confrontation, the talent of its rear guarantees some flashes necessary to beat South Africa, which will be able to count on its arrows Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse on wings. Fireworks guaranteed.

Argentina’s grinta can shake up the All Blacks

Mission impossible for Argentina? The Pumas have reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for the third time, which already feels like a great achievement. Even facing the New Zealanders in full swing after their victory against Ireland (24-28), the Argentines will have a card to play, and several trump cards up their sleeve. First of all, solid fundamentals: a reliable scorer even at long distance with Emiliano Boffelli, a solid scrum as usual, an impeccable touch, and great discipline.

But it is the madness of the Pumas which could make the Blacks falter: the Argentinians showed inexhaustible aggression against the Welsh last Saturday, and they will not come without their grinta in the semi-final. And Argentina is not lacking in talent: the twirling Mateo Carreras on the left wing, the formidable Santiago Chocobares in the center, Facundo Isa who seemed unstoppable in the third line last weekend… The last few months, and the opening match lost against France (13-27), showed that these All Blacks were anything but invincible, and even sometimes fragile. Doubt quickly sets in in rugby, and the Argentinians will be able to rush into every gap.

This will be the last opportunity to see some geniuses at work

The quarter-finals marked the last of several World Cup legends: Jonathan Sexton, Dan Biggar, Conor Murray, Keith Earls… It could be the same in the semi-final. Even if the losers will play a small final, the holders will not necessarily be lined up and this semi-final will remain as the last high-stakes match of their international career. Sam Whitelock (35), record holder for selections for the All Blacks, and scrum half Aaron Smith are playing their last World Cup, and this semi-final will be the last opportunity to admire these two legends in the event of elimination.

If it is the Argentinians who lose on Friday evening, the historic hinge Tomas Cubelli – Nicolas Sanchez will say goodbye to the World Cup. On the English side, the record holder for selections Ben Youngs (128 caps), but also Danny Care and Joe Marler bid farewell to this competition. And if they were to eliminate South Africa, third row veteran Duane Vermeulen (37) would celebrate his last cap. This weekend, all these players will fight to say goodbye in the World Cup final, and not before.

History is in progress…

No matter the direction of the story, it never stops being written. And this weekend, whoever wins, rugby fans will witness a never-before-seen chapter in their sport. England, like New Zealand, could qualify for a fifth final, which would be an all-time record. Conversely, Argentina would achieve the greatest feat in its history by reaching a World Cup final for the first time.

South Africa is on a mission to win a second consecutive title after 2019, which has only been achieved by New Zealand (in 2011 and 2015). Kiwi Sam Whitelock would play in a third World Cup final, an all-time record. And obviously, with South Africa and New Zealand tied at the top of the list (three World Cups each), if one of the two nations won this World Cup, it would become the most successful. To witness history being written, you will therefore have to follow these semi-finals.


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