The Rugby World Cup semi-finals have happened and I found both games to be thoroughly enjoyable. I’m planning on talking about both semi-final games and briefly about the final two games of the tournament. It is crazy to think this tournament is nearly at an end.
The first semi-final match was between New Zealand and South Africa. New Zealand were coming into this one having demolished France, whereas South Africa had won a very tight game against Wales with a little bit of magic towards the end of the game. New Zealand had won the encounter earlier in the year between the two teams during the Rugby Championship 27-20 but that game would have no bearing on this one. Before talking about the game, I want to mention something that happened before the game. For those who just know, or who found out by watching the film Invictus (great film by the way) – the South Africa team that won the World Cup in 1995 went for a jog around the streets of Johannesburg the morning of the final against New Zealand. On Saturday morning, members of that same team, led by the 95 captain Francois Pienaar, went for a jog around London. They were joined by thousands of fans and all ended up at the statue of Nelson Mandela in Westminster. When there, Francois Pienaar led the crowd in singing the South African national anthem. What a great moment.
On to the game - I’d say it was a fairly even first half, perhaps South Africa edging it as the better team of the half. They took the lead in the game with an early penalty but found themselves down on the scoreboard after 6 minutes when Jerome Caino scored a try which Dan Carter converted (at the second attempt mind, because Bryan Habana attempted to charge it down too early causing the first attempt to miss). These were the only points of the half for New Zealand. An interesting talking point occurred after 20 minutes when Richie McCaw appeared to strike Francois Louw with his elbow, causing him to need 20 stitches after the game. As of this writing, it seems as though he will not be cited for this. There is a case either way for whether or not he should be cited, but given a Samoa winger got a 5 week ban (reduced on appeal) for running and catching a low tackling player with his knee – it is easy to see why some of the Tier B nations feel aggrieved at the differences in sanctions they receive in comparison to a tier A nation. Anyway, one thing I noticed was just how many penalties they were conceding. I think in the first half, they conceded 9 – which is shockingly high for New Zealand. As a result of that though, South Africa were able to nudge ahead, scoring another two penalties to make the score 9-7. Then at the death, Caino conceded a pretty cynical penalty and was sent to the bin for 10 minutes. The last kick of the half was scored and South Africa went in at the break 12-7 up. New Zealand were down on the scoreboard, and would be without a member of their pack for the first 9 minutes of the second half – things weren’t looking good for the All Blacks.
You couldn’t help but feel that New Zealand needed something special to overcome those odds. Or at the very least, not to lose too many points when they were shorthanded. Up steps Dan Carter. His 10+ years of game management experience for the All Blacks shone through. He was sublime in this game. His first contribution of the half in terms of altering the scoreboard was a rare successful drop goal for New Zealand (only his 7th in international games). He also had a hand in New Zealand’s second try, a try which came about following a South African knock on. He converted that try from the touch line. New Zealand had not only not conceded points in Caino’s absence, but had now taken the lead 17-12. To add insult to injury, Bryan Habana was sent to the bin for his somewhat illegal attempt to disrupt the ball to try and prevent New Zealand from scoring a try. New Zealand scored the try and he got a 10 minute sit down in the bin – not ideal for him or for South Africa. South Africa scored two more penalties in this half, but these came either side of a successful penalty kick for the All Blacks, meaning the score was 20-18 in the 60th minute and lead to a tense conclusion. No more points were scored but both teams but South Africa came close with JP Pietersen coming close following a probing kick from Pat Lambie but Dan Carter got to the loose ball first and cleared it away into touch. New Zealand won the game, and made it to their 2nd successive final. They have been one of the best teams at this tournament and deserved to make it there.
The second semi-final took place yesterday between Argentina and Australia. Australia made the semi-final after a late win against Scotland (enough has been written about that game in the last week without me briefly recapping it again). Argentina made the semi-finals for the first time since 2007 by taking apart Ireland. The first half could not have started worse for Argentina, as they were passing the ball around a bit loosely and one of those passes was intercepted by Australian lock Rob Simmons who ran over for the first try of the game. The second try came as a result of an Argentinian mistake as well. Argentina were awarded a penalty in their own 22, and instead of clearing their lines, scrum-half Martin Landajo tapped the ball and them knocked it on, giving Australia a scrum right under the posts. A long pass after the scrum allowed Adam Ashley-Cooper to go over in the corner. 14-3 and I was wondering if the game was done. A yellow card was given to Argentinian lock Tomas Lavanini for not using his arms in a tackle. Personally I agree with it being called back and Australia getting the penalty but I’m not sure a yellow card was fair. Australia made the extra man count and scored another try with Ashley-Cooper again going over, this time in the other corner. This try was not converted but the score was 19-6. Argentina got another 3 points before half time but what was evident is that the Australian defence we saw against Wales was not a one off. Argentina were furiously knocking on the door looking for a way through. On occasion they even found a clean break but Australia held firm and did not concede. Half time 19-9.
The second half was mostly how Argentina battled back into the game. They found themselves within a converted try away from tying the game up twice. Bernard Foley scored one penalty and Nicolas Sanchez scored two. Argentina were starting to rumble forward, winning scrum battles and gaining territory. I think a lot of people started just to believe a little bit. However, with this came wasted chances. There were at least 3 times Argentina had overlaps out wide which they didn’t convert into points. And then, a moment of sheer magic. Drew Mitchell broke the line and dodged so many Argentinian tackles before shipping the ball out for Ashley-Cooper to score his hat trick – game over. The full time score was 29-15 and that score line is probably fair. Australia were superb at the breakdown again, with David Pocock making 4 of them. I mentioned it earlier but the defence was imperious. Australia made 142 tackles – which shows just how much Argentina were trying to break through their back line. Australia have looked to be one of the world’s best in this tournament at times, and definitely have earned their place in the last two.
So, the final is Australia versus New Zealand. Remarkably, this is the first time these two nations have met in a Rugby World Cup final. Whatever happens, a record will be broken as no team has won the competition 3 times. New Zealand could set two records if they win as they will be the first team to retain the World Cup. I really have no idea which way the final will go. I think they have played each other twice this season and each won a game – so looking back on past results doesn’t really help. However, the game Australia won was a very close affair, the one New Zealand won…not so much. We are down to the last two games, and what has arguably been the best Rugby World Cup in history will be over. These last two months have been a great time to be a rugby fan for sure, and I have no doubt the last weekend will be fantastic.