When New Zealand and South Africa clash, all bets are off.
The Springboks are probably the only side in the world that New Zealand doubt themselves against as no other nation has managed a higher win ratio against them at 39% - 35 wins from 90 contests. The clashes have always been massively physical but this one represents the ultimate meeting of beauty and the beast.
The crazy thing is that when South Africa choose to utilise their backs and specifically an electric back three of Bryan Habana, who needs a try to surpass Jonah Lomu as the tournament’s all time record try scorer, Willie Le Roux and JP Pietersen they have massive try scoring potential.
The issue here surrounds a lack of trust from coach Heyneke Mayer in his young trio of out-half Hande Pollard (21) and the midfield combination of Damian de Allende (23) and Jesse Kriel (21).
They too have shown massive promise but with a coaching background highly influenced by years at the helm of the forward dominated Blue Bulls machine, Mayer is unlikely to break ranks today.
That is a mistake. The last time South Africa beat New Zealand, they threw caution to the wind and won 27-25, scoring three tries apiece, in a classic at Ellis Park Johannesburg in October of last year. To beat New Zealand to have to score tries because you know with certainty that they will score them against you.
In latest wing sensation Nehe Milner-Skudder they have discovered yet another try-scoring machine while Julian Savea on the other wing is proving even more deadly than ever. With that fire power out wide, allied to the midfield threat posed by the evergreen Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, supplemented even further by the sublime offloading skills of Sonny Bill Williams off the bench when defences start to tire, New Zealand are impossible to contain for eighty minutes.
The Springboks will enjoy period of dominance today, it’s a question of how many points they can post on the scoreboard during that period. If they revert to type and scrum half Fourie du Preez resorts to feeding one out runners to bash their way over the gain line, they will not prevail. The fact that the iconic 1995 World Cup winning Springbok side spent time with the current squad yesterday will undoubtedly offer inspiration but will it be enough?
Despite being severely depleted with injuries, Wales all but beat South Africa at their own game in their quarter-final. Of more importance, when try scoring chances presented themselves, Warren Gatland’s men lacked the skill set and ruthlessness to execute. I can’t see this New Zealand side being quite as profligate.
Of the two semi finals, the meeting of Australia and Los Pumas is the one I’m really looking forward to given the quality and skill set on show across the respective back lines. That said the difference between winning and losing could yet come down to scrum dominance which shines the spotlight firmly on Wallaby scrum coach Mario Ledesma.
Arguably no forward has done more to elevate Argentina to its current state. Having played in the last four World Cups for his beloved Pumas, Ledesma faces a serious crisis of conscience tomorrow. This is the clash he dreaded in this tournament and he could prove the biggest obstacle to his native country reaching a first ever World Cup final.
One of the principal reasons for the decline of the Wallabies in recent years was a porous scrum. It was embarrassing to watch and was the sole reason why the Lions won the test series against them in 2013. Michael Cheika recognised this and appointed the former Argentine hooker to address a serious problem.
Ledesma has now turned them into a highly efficient unit. However all his hard work over the last few months will be tested to the full given the injury withdrawal of young Brumbies loose head prop, Scott Sio. He has been a revelation and helped turn the Wallaby scrum into an attacking weapon prior to injuring his elbow against Scotland last weekend.
The fact that David Pocock and Israel Folau are back in harness having missed that quarter final is a boost but I think if Cheika had a choice of having only two of those three fit, he would have opted for Sio over Folau - and that’s which is saying something. The Argentine front row will now target Sio’s replacement James Slipper.
The big challenge for Argentina tomorrow is to succeed where Ireland failed in the physical and mental stakes last weekend. We placed an over emphasis on beating France and were left flat for Argentina. The Pumas targeted us from the minute their opening game against New Zealand was over and celebrated wildly at achieving their goal. Can they now produce that level of performance on successive Sunday’s, a challenge that proved beyond our capability?
The key advantage Argentina hold over Ireland is a relatively clean bill of health. If anything the return after suspension of Marcelo Bosch in midfield makes them even stronger this weekend. They are also brimming with confidence. “We trust ourselves to be competitive against the best and we are not scared to play with width no matter who we are facing.” When grizzled loose head prop Marcos Ayerza is saying that, you just know they are going to turn up and make this a serious contest.
Argentina have the capacity to spring a surprise in this one and make a first ever World Cup decider. Despite the pain and anguish they have caused us in this tournament over the years, I would love to see them win.
Either way Ledesma will be an emotional wreck. Tears were the order of the day in the Puma ranks from start to finish last weekend.
The odds are against them but if they can get out of the blocks as quickly as they did against us, Argentina are quite capable of creating a shock.
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