Rugby World Cup 2019

Writing a script for the ages

English want to be protagonists against Kiwis; Welsh welcome uphill Boks battle

YOKOHAMA • The Rugby World Cup will hold its semi-finals this weekend, and the cream has risen to the top.

The four semi-finalists' results in the pool stage and quarter-finals have them rightfully ranked first to fourth in the rankings, matching the top-two southern hemisphere teams against their northern equivalents.

Today, two-time defending champions New Zealand face an England team who are firing on all cylinders, while Wales take on South Africa tomorrow.

The All Blacks, who have not lost in the Cup since 2007 and are bidding for an unprecedented third straight title, hold a big edge over England in head-to-head meetings - 33 victories to seven defeats and having won their last six Tests. However, they have met only once in the past five years.

New Zealand had to dig deep to carve out a 16-15 win in London last November. With four of their last six clashes decided by fewer than seven points, Eddie Jones, who brought in George Ford but otherwise named an unchanged team, is convinced his players can "change history" in Yokohama.

Before the Cup started, the England coach invited Alex Ferguson to address his squad. In echoes of the former Manchester United manager's claim that usurping rivals Liverpool was his greatest achievement, he said: "The reason you're involved in this game is you want to be the best.

"Most people think New Zealand are going to win. We've got 31 players and 20-odd staff who believe we can win, we're the only people in Japan who think we can win.

"When you've been involved in rugby, the country you want to knock off is New Zealand, because they've been the best. I don't think (rugby) needs it but we need it."

"They're human. They bleed, they drop balls, they miss tackles like every other player. It is our job to take the time and space away so that we put them under pressure."

EDDIE JONES, England coach

"Sometimes, people will, in the euphoria of winning the quarter-final, look ahead to the final. If you start looking beyond where we're at, then your mind isn't where your feet are and that makes you vulnerable."

STEVE HANSEN, New Zealand coach

"It will probably be a kicking fest. It won't be the prettiest game in the world, a tight Test with probably teams playing (for) territory depending (on) what the weather is like."

WARREN GATLAND, Wales coach

"We've got some proper hidings against almost all the teams. We are at that stage where we want to become No. 1 in the world again."

RASSIE ERASMUS, South Africa coach

While he considers the All Blacks to be "one of the greatest teams ever", Jones knows they are not invincible, having beaten them five times in 11 matches when in charge of Australia.

Insisting that England, who are making their first semi-final appearance since 2007, have never been more "ready as we've had 21/2 years to prepare for this game", he said: "They're human. They bleed, they drop balls, they miss tackles like every other player.

"It is our job to take the time and space away so that we put them under pressure.

"We want to write the script, we don't want to be watching it, we've got to be in there writing it."

But his counterpart Steve Hansen is only too aware of being on the receiving end of an upset, as the assistant of a heavily fancied New Zealand team stunned by France in the last eight of the 2007 Cup.

Calling their titanic clash as a "game for the ages", the All Blacks coach said his players were not looking past England, having made "the mistake in the past".

"Sometimes, people will, in the euphoria of winning the quarter-final, start looking ahead to the final," Hansen added. "If you start looking beyond where we're at, then your mind isn't where your feet are and that makes you vulnerable.

"England have been a marvellous team in periods and we have a lot of respect for what they have achieved over the last four years. It will be a big battle."

The bookmakers also share the same sentiments, unlike the long odds placed on Wales to reach their maiden Cup final.

Despite four successive Test wins over South Africa, most analysts feel that the Springboks, whose overall head-to-head record stands at 28-6-1, will be simply too strong and have the greater depth.

Not that Wales coach Warren Gatland minds. Imploring the media to "please keep doing that, because it does get us up when people write us off", he said yesterday: "Our record over South Africa has been pretty good in the last four or five years, and that speaks for itself.

"It will probably be a kicking fest. It won't be the prettiest game in the world, a tight Test with probably teams playing (for) territory depending (on) what the weather is like.

"You'll see a lot of balls going in the air and we'll have to handle that, and they'll have to handle our game too."

However, the Boks' Faf de Klerk is not reading too much into Wales' statistical edge as "we (then) had a completely different way of playing and attacking".

A lot of that has to do with Rassie Erasmus, who has revitalised the two-time champions after several lean years and they are now in a position to "redeem ourselves".

The Boks coach said: "We've got some proper hidings against almost all the teams. We are at that stage where we want to become No. 1 in the world again."

NYTIMES, REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2019, with the headline 'Writing a script for the ages'. Print Edition | Subscribe