England have not beaten the All Blacks since their famous 2012 win at Twickenham, despite having faced them on seven occasions since. Regardless, ahead of their highly-anticipated semifinal showdown on Saturday in Yokohama, there is reason for optimism.

Defence can keep All Blacks in check

There was an air of uncertainty in the opening 18 minutes of England's quarter-final win, as Australia moved seamlessly through their gears, using Samu Kerevi to hit hard and free up the space for Jordan Petaia to probe the wide channels. It was exhilarating play but ended with the ultimate hammer blow as two tries in as many minutes from Jonny May gave England a massive psychological boost and control of the scoreboard.

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The second defining moment of the contest came in the 59th minute after Australia had opted to take an attacking scrum in front of the posts as they attempted to claw back an 11-point deficit. England's line held, with a turnover by Kyle Sinckler vital. This was a dominant performance despite England operating with just 36 per cent of possession and 38 per cent of territory, making 181 tackles to just 79 by Australia.

"We pride ourselves on our defence," said Jamie George after tries by Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson after May's double sealed a fine 40-16 win. "The impressive thing from us was our resilience. Our defence in and around that 22 was very good I thought. We call it try-scoring defence. And you saw a couple of them there."

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'Club England' mentality is strong

The survivors of the last two World Cup campaigns have spoken about the tightness of this squad and their actions matched those words on Saturday. England never looked flustered or ragged even when it was briefly a one-point game, oozing confidence in their structures and systems as their togetherness shone through.

"What I am most pleased about is the fact that the game got tight and put us under pressure, and everything that we rehearsed and practiced and sat in meetings about how we handle it and how we get a grip on it, we were able to do," said Ben Youngs, one of only three players in the starting XV who had experienced a World Cup quarter-final.

"That was really pleasing to do that in a huge game.

"We stayed with how we wanted to play, no one went off script. No one tried to solve it on their own, we just stuck at it and eventually ground it down.

"The World Cup is different because you get a huge period together and you are able to create bonds and invest more time into each other so that when it gets tough, you can trust your mates. We've got that club feel. That showed. That bit when they were really challenging our line and coming and coming in waves and then they went to the scrum and kept coming, it was a tremendous defensive effort".

The Miyazaki effect

Concerns England might be under-cooked because of the cancellation of the final pool match against France proved unfounded. Instead, the rest period back at their Miyazaki base proved to be a significant advantage that could also prove influential against the All Blacks.

While Australia started the match in break-neck fashion, England both had the wherewithal and lungs to withstand the early barrage, with Manu Tuilagi ending an 18-phase attack by smashing the ball out of Christian Lealiifano's grasp. Dean Benton, the RFU's former head of sports science, was key in revolutionising England's conditioning programme, and he has also taken major strides in improving the Wallabies' fitness since joining the ARU this year - but in the second half, England's superiority there was clear. It was the fourth time in succession that England have dominated Australia in the second half, in 2016 it was 24-5; 2017 24-6, and last year 24-6.

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England's Anthony Watson celebrates with teammates after scoring a try. Photo / AP
England's Anthony Watson celebrates with teammates after scoring a try. Photo / AP

"I felt like it benefited us," said George, when asked about the cancellation of the France game. "We went to Miyazaki, it's a great training facility there, I thought it was probably what the team needed. The way we felt on the field was sharp but it was nice to be challenged. We had to really dig in at times, defensively. And the way the game was played it was very fast and physically we are in a pretty good place."

George revealed that England's training session on Wednesday had been more strenuous at times that the match itself.

"If you look at the GPS and all the sport science stuff we are in pretty good nick. The way we train is coming to the forefront in how we play," George added. "To be honest the way we train is often more difficult than games so we had a good blowout on that Saturday. We were able to put a few things in place that we were able to fall back on next week. That gave us time to potentially go back to those things and whoever we play in the semi-final might see that."

Farrell factor

Eddie Jones had called on his captain to worry less about others and concentrate on his own game to recapture his form and Owen Farrell delivered a fine performance, landing all eight kicks at goal, putting Sinckler over and making 17 tackles. The decision to start Henry Slade at 13 paid off as England's midfield coped with the physicality of the Australians. Jones then had the luxury of changing his attacking structure by introducing George Ford at fly-half on the hour, with Farrell switching to inside centre.

"For a young captain he is doing extraordinarily well," said Jones. "Considering he has been in the job 15 months and he doesn't captain his club team. He is growing all the time and the challenge for him this week – again – is how he gets his personal prep right, as opposed to being captain of a team that carries a lot of expectation, a lot of weight and, in that way, a lot of external pressure. We've got to cope with that and find a way to be at our best on Saturday."


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