COMMENT:

Let us start with a thank-you to Japan – your team has been brave, skilful and inspirational. If there is any justice, a place will be found for you in one of the two top international competitions and the automatic right given to your fellow tier-two nations to follow when they deserve inclusion.

If this is not enabled by the two cosy clubs that run the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations, we will know (if we do not already) that they are not interested in growing the game, beyond enriching themselves yet further in relation to the rest of rugby.

Despite what World Rugby's official rankings say, the world's top four teams will contest the World Cup semifinals and they should both be satisfyingly tense. The semifinalists have distinctly different strengths and which style will triumph can be endlessly debated. Suffice to say, it will be interesting.

Advertisement

The England versus New Zealand game should be a thrilling encounter because both have shown the ability to score quickly and in a variety of ways. I doubt whether either of the teams in the other side of the draw have the wherewithal to beat the Kiwis, and England will have to play at their very best to do so. That said, they have the variety of attacking options and enough ball carriers who can break the gain and tackle lines to unsettle a hugely disciplined All Black defence.

The way in which England recovered from fast starts by Australia, at the beginning of both halves on Saturday, showed composure and some indication that they have absorbed, at least in part, the lessons of Wales and Scotland in the most recent Six Nations. As written here several times, we had not seen anywhere near Eddie Jones's first-choice outfit, and when we did, you can see how just two or three extra attacking threats can unlock the best defensive systems.

New Zealand's Jack Goodhue is tackled by England's Mark Wilson and Maro Itoje during last year's test at Twickenham. Photosport
New Zealand's Jack Goodhue is tackled by England's Mark Wilson and Maro Itoje during last year's test at Twickenham. Photosport

Starting Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola gave England that crucial advantage. On the edge of two forward pods, they can take the ball into contact, slip it inside or out to support runners or pivot and deliver the deep ball to lateral runners and create opportunities out wide. However, against New Zealand it is their kicking game that must be near perfect. They cannot afford to get this wrong against a Kiwi backfield who have shown how deadly they are with inaccurate kicks and indiscipline chasing.

For the Kiwis, you can but marvel at the way they are prepared to play nascent talent, such as Jack Goodhue, and augment it with experience. The decision-making of veteran Aaron Smith was equalled by his sublime service and was the fulcrum around which New Zealand blew away a disappointing Irish challenge. While giving the Kiwis full credit for a superb all-round display, you should ask why Ireland, yet again in a World Cup, limped out of the tournament. If the Irish rugby fans are satisfied with explanations such as "we're a small nation", "it's not our No 1 sport" and "we punch above our weight anyway", then fine, but that will not get to the root of why this keeps happening.

As for Warren Gatland, you can say that France, again, imploded and made inexplicable decisions at crucial points during their clash, but you cannot question his side's obduracy. Had the French possessed a modicum of rugby nous, they would have put this game away by 15 points, but they do not.

Getting a man sent off and not packing down with eight men at a critical attacking scrum were more to blame than any marginal decision about a ball going forward. And, for the record, as a disinterested spectator, I could not certainly say it did go forward.

It must be open to question whether Wales will be given this latitude by a powerful Springbok side and one who have individuals capable of making game-winning plays. But, would you put your house on them not scrapping their way to their first World Cup final? I would not.

Before they take this historic step, they will have to deal with the Boks' rush defence and the individual power that the South Africans bring to each collision. This is not a new conundrum but to solve it they will have to make sure their most potent attackers, especially their back three, get involved in the game on more than an occasional basis. They cannot rely on counter-attacking chances given by poor South African kicking, of which I am sure there will be a limited amount.

Advertisement

For the Springboks, they might bludgeon Wales into submission, but could they do that to England or New Zealand? I doubt that. It is time for them to enhance their boshing and add to it a bit more ambition.


App users click here