Two contrasting semi-finals, both equally captivating in their own way. The debate about how Ireland should play the game will rumble on long after this tournament is over but as the weekend’s absorbing action proved, you have to play to your strengths.
What we know now is that the two best sides in the tournament have made it through to what promises to be a great decider back here in Twickenham on Saturday. If New Zealand were required to dig deeper than many thought necessary to subdue a Springbok side on a mission for redemption since their opening pool shock defeat to Japan, Australia were that little bit smarter from the outset than Argentina, and that proved the big difference.
After sprinting out of the blocks from the kick-off against Ireland last weekend, this time Argentina met a side who knew exactly what to expect. Rather than ease their way into the contest, the Pumas continued from where they left off against us with an addiction to the wide game but the Wallabies were lying in wait. When a second row plucks an intercept and sprints in unopposed from 30 metres for a try — as Rob Simmons did less than two minutes into the game — you know you are in trouble.
The opening 10 minutes saw Cardiff flipped on its head. Where Argentina pummelled Ireland to win a ball against the head in the opening scrum of the game in exactly the same defensive area of the field, Australia worked a Joe Schmidt strike move for Adam Ashley Cooper to score in the corner. 14-0 up after 10 minutes against Ireland, Argentina experienced life on the other side of the track this time out at 14-3 down. It’s not a great place to be.
A harsh yellow card against Tomas Lavinina also had its origins back in Wales as referees are seeking to punish the type of chop tackle trademarked by Dan Lydiate and Richard Hibbard.
If the official detects a reluctance to use your arms in the tackle, you will be punished.
Given the start Argentina endured here, being reduced to 14 men was the last thing they needed.
Just like Ireland against France, Argentina lost three key players to injury in captain Agustin Creevy, flying winger Juan Imhoff and playmaker Juan Martin Hernandez. The latter was clearly targeted by Australia and was on the end of a few ferocious hits from David Pocock and Scott Fardy. Creevy hadn’t trained all week having been forced off last weekend but his inspirational presence was such that Argentina coach Daniel Hourcade had no such option but to start him.
Argentina may have accounted for Ireland with ease but in terms of progressing to a first Rugby World Cup final, this tournament has come just a little too soon. With Julian Montoya already on for Creevy, when the freakishly talented Facundo Isa replaced Leonardo Senatore on 48 minutes, Argentina had five forwards on the pitch under the age of 23. That increased to six when prop Lucas Noguera entered the fray for the final quarter yet Argentina continued to make massive inroads against the Wallaby front five. The difference between the sides was a Herculean effort from the Australian back row for whom Pocock was his usual outstanding self, along with Michael Hooper, with the unheralded Fardy even managing to surpass the effort of his more illustrious wing men on this occasion.
In addition the Wallaby defence refused to yield and marshalled the wide channels with far more authority than Ireland managed.
To hold this Argentinian attacking machine try less was an incredible effort, for having reduced the deficit to seven points, despite their injury woes, a try from the Pumas at any stage of the second half could have stretched Australia to the point of breaking.
On top of that, to register four tries, despite being under constant pressure, shows exactly why Australia are probably the only side with the firepower which could seriously threaten New Zealand’s quest for back to back titles next weekend.
Unfortunately the naivety Argentina displayed in the opening quarter proved their downfall. While they have embraced the wide offloading game promoted by Graham Henry three years ago, Hourcade would be wise to take on board the amount of territorial kicking that is also a key part of New Zealand’s blueprint. With a bit more balance to their game, they will prove incredibly hard to beat.
Despite all the talk since the quarter-finals about the skillset of the southern hemisphere sides, South Africa played a very similar brand of rugby to Ireland, built around a strong kicking game — they won the aerial battle hands down in the opening half — the choke tackle, a strong scrum and a powerful maul. The Springbok lineout, despite the presence of a towering young second row combination, wasn’t quite in Ireland’s class, however, and that proved costly.
The big difference is the strength of the Springboks in the tackle and contact area where they repeatedly drove even the most dynamic New Zealand ball carriers backwards. Despite dominating territory (72%) and possession (65%), the All Blacks reached the interval five points in arrears, due primarily to uncharacteristic indiscipline and with try scorer Jerome Kaino in the bin. To add insult to injury, the rain started to bucket down right at the break.
The odds were tilting in South Africa’s favour but New Zealand usually find a way in such circumstances. They are the kings of managing those championship minutes either side of the break. Despite the fact that Kaino spent the first eight minutes after the restart in the bin, New Zealand turned a five-point deficit into a five-point lead within 11 minutes of the break.
They instinctively know what to do and increased the tempo of the game, ran great lines and before South Africa knew what hit them, substitute Beauden Barrett was touching down just minutes after coming on.
A bit like Ireland, when South Africa have to chase a game, they are in trouble. In addition, they place an over-reliance on generating penalties from scrums or lineout mauls. With the conditions deteriorating even further, it nearly worked, narrowing the gap to two points but the way New Zealand managed the last 10 minutes was incredible.
When others might panic, they step up to the plate and come into their own. Mentally, they are the strongest side in the game and that shone through magnificently over that nervewracking closing stage when, once again, they refused to be beaten.
South Africa had their window of opportunity to take the lead via a lineout maul 20 metres from the New Zealand line. The alarm bells were ringing but the fire brigade was already at the scene. In three consecutive phases, New Zealand produced three tournament-winning moments.
The first was their defence on the deck of the powerful Springbok lineout maul when they drove it back yards. The second was in generating a turnover at the next phase in front of their posts and the third arrived immediately after when scrum-half Aaron Smith found touch after that crucial turnover. Then there was a throw to South Africa with lineout king Victor Matfield now on the field, only for New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock to steal the ball from under Matfield’s nose. South Africa never got a foothold in the New Zealand half again. Game over.
In the end, South Africa’s inability to generate try-scoring opportunities coupled with a misfiring lineout — they lost five in total — cost them dearly. The final will be better for the presence of New Zealand and while South Africa have come a long way since that opening defeat against Japan, that result, rather than reaching the last four, is set to define their tournament.
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