Brute force won’t be enough for Boks after England’s tour de force

Brute force won’t be enough for Boks after England’s tour de force
New Zealand’s Codie Taylor tackles England’s Billy Vunipola in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final in Yokohama. Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images

With the cream having risen to the top and the four best sides left standing in the tournament providing two contrasting semi-final shootouts, we are left, with a potentially explosive final with rugby north and south of the equator set for a fascinating head to head.

England set the benchmark for fellow Six Nations rivals Wales to follow with a thunderous win over reigning champions New Zealand on Saturday.

Warren Gatland’s men were up against it in their clash against South Africa, especially having to play without two of their best players in the tournament in Josh Navidi and Liam Williams.

A task that was made even more challenging by the loss of two more key players during the game in Tom Francis and George North.

Wales tend to hang in there and in a game where fortune might have favoured the brave, neither side was prepared to have a real go.

South Africa have completely abandoned any semblance of ambition, relying exclusively on their traditional power to bully sides into submission. As a result the second semi-final looked even worse if compared to the artistry of the first contest.

The Welsh, to their credit, fought manfully and once again showed commendable mental strength to respond almost immediately to what felt at the time was a game defining opening try from Springbok centre Damian De Allende.

Under Gatland, Wales refuse to throw in the towel and when Josh Adams replied minutes later with his sixth try of the tournament to level the scores, and become the leading try scorer in the tournament on six, you felt that Wales might just sneak it.

Unfortunately the Springbok set-piece was always likely to be the deciding factor and a scrum penalty with just minutes remaining put paid to Welsh chances of a first ever final appearance.

That said, at least Wales maximised their potential in this tournament, winning five of their six games. Gatland’s reign finishes with the bronze final on Friday night.

His one regret in his 12 year stint is that Wales have never beaten his native New Zealand on his watch.

What a fitting send-off it would prove if that transpired in his very last game.

As for South Africa, Rassie Erasmus has to face up to the fact that brute force will not be enough to win the final against an English side whose victory over New Zealand 24 hours earlier will go down as one of the greatest games in the history of the World Cup.

England reserved not only their best performance of the tournament, but their most complete since the game turned professional 24 years ago, to dismiss the New Zealand challenge in as ruthless a manner as the All Blacks had shown when hammering Ireland a week earlier.

Suspicions that this New Zealand side was not in the same class as the one that retained the Webb Ellis Cup 2015 were parked after that comprehensive 46-14 win last weekend, but the clinical manner with which this English side dealt with Steve Hansen’s men has only served to highlight how far off the mark Ireland were.

England not only beat New Zealand but did so playing an exciting brand of rugby straight out of their opponents’ playbook.

Traditionally, England’s forwards have always been able to go toe to toe with the best in the business up front but it was the skill levels shown by their front five and their ability to keep the ball alive in the tackle that set this forward unit apart from any of their predecessors in white.

Mako Vunipola has always been comfortable on the ball but even he has been surpassed in that department by fellow prop Kyle Sinckler, who was outstanding once again.

The build-up play that led to the opening try just two minutes into the game by Manu Tuilagi was sensational and rocked New Zealand so badly they never really recovered, left chasing the game from that point forward.

England look a team transformed since the Six Nations. It’s one thing producing a scintillating brand of rugby in Twickenham against an Irish side who were way off the pace after a heavy training camp in Portugal in that warm-up game back in August.

To reproduce that quality in a World Cup semi-final against the back-to- back champions was a tribute to the confidence and belief that Eddie Jones has instilled in what we already knew were a very decent group of rugby players.

Manu Tuilagi’s early try set up England’s victory (Ashley Western/PA)
Manu Tuilagi’s early try set up England’s victory (Ashley Western/PA)

Thirteen of Saturday’s matchday squad were British and Irish Lions, 11 of who featured in the drawn series against New Zealand two years ago. This was the day they put the lessons learned as a collective from that experience to good use.

Jones looked at the areas where New Zealand do most damage, most notably the ability of their back row to dominate the breakdown and to generate quick ball for Aaron Smith. England completely negated their effectiveness in this area.

To do so with a pair of young, powerful and dynamic wing forwards, in 21-year-old Tom Curry and his 23-year-old partner in crime, Sam Underhill, was an outstanding achievement.

Jones capped Curry as an 18-year-old, straight out of school, on a tour of Argentina three years ago with this moment in mind. Even back then, he recognised that this kid was capable of greatness.

His power in the tackle, poaching ability over the ball, and explosiveness when carrying created endless problems for New Zealand. Underhill wasn’t far behind and such was their influence that Ardie Savea, who looked unplayable against Ireland, made no impression whatsoever.

In between the Kamikaze Kids, as Jones has dubbed that dynamic duo, Billy Vunipola stood head and shoulders over New Zealand captain Kieran Read.

Even when Hansen reversed his big selection call at half-time, when reintroducing Sam Cane for Scott Barrett in an effort to break England’s stranglehold at the breakdown, Cane and Savea couldn’t turn the tide.

The New Zealand maul was rendered ineffective by the collective will of the magnificent England forwards, with Maro Itoje’s uncanny ability to somehow immerse himself in the middle of their maul and get his hands on the ball.

As Ireland highlighted in the past, this New Zealand side struggles when it has to chase a lead. The number of errors they made in trying to bridge the gap on the scoreline was staggering.

The quality of New Zealand’s offloading is often what separates them from the rest but, with their trademark composure shredded, Reid’s men made some really poor decisions and England turned a key strength of their game into a weakness.

On a number of occasions, when trying to build some modicum of momentum, too many All Blacks attempted o play out of the tackle in impossible situations when they would have been better served taking the tackle and recycling the ball.

Every knock or turnover served to energise England even more.

The quality of their attacking play was a joy to behold and, to his credit, Jones got his tactics and selection spot on when reverting to George Ford at out-half and shifting Owen Farrell to inside centre.

Having scored four tries and 40 points in their dismantling of Australia the previous week, one was entitled to question the decision to alter his attacking formation.

The variety they brought, through the excellence of their kicking and passing game, fully justified that call.

England took a unique approach to facing the Haka (Adam Davy/PA)
England took a unique approach to facing the Haka (Adam Davy/PA)

If England’s quality in attack was a major contributor to this win, it was the pressure they exerted through their wonderfully marshalled defence that really unnerved New Zealand.

The All Black midfield couldn’t deal with the fact that England empowered their players to shoot up in defence and put the receiver under big pressure.

Normally the quality of New Zealand’s passing, or their ability to exploit a dogleg in the defensive line, enables them exploit those situations. Not on this occasion.

That was down to the work-rate and understanding of every England player of their defensive responsibilities.

This ranks as the most complete performance I have ever seen England producE.

For that, Jones and his players deserve enormous credit. They were superb and the quality of the rugby produced in the opening half alone is worthy of winning a World Cup.

Having witnessed both semi-finals, England are now warm favourites to go all the way and win this World Cup.

If they do so, beating Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on successive weekends, it will be their greatest ever achievement on a rugby field.

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