By Neil Leverett
- England, New Zealand, Wales and South Africa book places in Rugby World Cup semi-finals in Japan
- The Rose, All Blacks and Springboks ease to emphatic wins, as hosts Japan bow out
- Wales need controversial late try to beat 14-man France, as Warren Gatland’s men reach third semi
JAPAN – On the heels of a scintillating weekend in both Oita and Tokyo, what did we learn from the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in Japan?
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Jones’ call vindicated
As England marched into their first Rugby World Cup semi-final since 2007, the Rose bloomed and put in a powerful and dominant performance to leave Australia in their wake, winning 40-16, as Head Coach Eddie Jones‘ risky personnel call paid off handsomely.
Opting to play Henry Slade at centre, as George Ford – one of England’s most consistent performers in Japan – dropped to the bench, proved the decisive call from the former Wallabies coach, with Slade handing off to Jonny May in the latter’s second explosive try.
As May opened up a 17-6 points advantage, Marika Koroibete‘s score minutes after the break failed to break English will, and as if to vindicate his call pre-match, Jones then brought Ford into play for the final 20 minutes, as the Leicester fly-half pushed England on to greater comfort via Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson.
Ford may still be the outstanding candidate to face the might of the All Blacks on Saturday, but Slade was Jones’ man in the Six Nations earlier this season, and now with a seemingly clean bill of health, it would be no surprise to see the same XV in Yokohama this weekend which few could argue Jones has merited in deciding.
Ominous All Blacks
With one Antipodean nation put to one side however, the task of beating the reigning World champions New Zealand is quite another, as Steve Hansen‘s men again look favourites to win a record third successive William Webb Ellis trophy in 12 day’s time in Tokyo.
Demolishing Ireland 46-14, the All Blacks put aside their two of three defeats to Sunday opponents in ominous fashion, as Aaron Smith‘s brace and an arguably match-winning show from Richie Mo’unga saw New Zealand home in emphatic manner.
Having come out on top against the Springboks in Pool A’s decisive clash, Hansen’ charges have gone from strength to strength in their last three games, racking up tallies of 63, 71 and now 46 respectively.
With the world champions again peaking at the right time, that progressive arc takes the All Blacks onto a collision course with England in Yokohama. As both former nations to lift the famous gold trophy however, New Zealand may be unstoppable in their drive toward another four-year reign.
Wales must give more…
The Welsh Dragon continued to blaze a trail in Japan on Sunday, but only by a mere fiery breath as Warren Gatland‘s men made their third World Cup semi-final berth, narrowly edging 14-man France 20-19 – via a controversial late Ross Moriarty try.
As Les Bleus tore out of the traps in Oita, tries from Sebastien Vahaamahina and Charles Ollivon in the opening eight minutes stunned the Welsh, as back-row Aaron Wainwright responded for the game’s third score in 12 minutes.
France however continued to roll on, only for an impulsive and violent elbow to the head by the opening French scorer to Wainwright with 30 minutes to play saw the advantage shift to Wales.
Despite playing with a man advantage, only the boot of Dan Biggar closed the gap to a manageable size, and as Romain Ntamack missed two vital kicks, Moriarty went over with six minutes to play – despite replays suggesting the ball was either knocked on or went forward.
As the valleys heaved a collective sigh of relief, Wales had again shown signs of fatigue in view of the line, but with their place in the last for secured, Gatland will look for – and need – his men to dig into their reserves against South Africa on Sunday.
…Springbok bridge too far?
As the Welsh hobbled over the line, the Springboks put in third impressive showing of quarter-final weekend, to beat Japan 26-3, as the Springbok’s finally doused the flame of optimism in the Land of the Rising sun.
Exacting revenge of the Brave Blossoms after the remarkable 34-32 defeat four years ago in Brighton, Rassie Erasmus‘s side played the perfect game to silence Japan’s wingers and were a colossus at the breakdown, with the Boks’ opposing wing Makazole Mapimpi too hot to handle scoring a try double.
As South Africa’s heavyweight pack proved a level above Jamie Joseph’s impassioned Asian warriors, the Rugby Championship winners threw their hat into ring for further consideration, and who now could win their third title after wins in 1995 and 2007.
Indeed, as Rugby Championship and Six Nations holders meet in the semi-finals, margins are little between the two sides, however after slowly creeping back into the top tier on rugby radar over the past five years, could South Africa prove too strong for Wales to handle?
As the final say of a weekend that saw both Ireland and the Wallabies bowing out of the tournament, so too did respective stewards Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika – with the Australian opting not to sign a new contract after defeat in Oita.
Leading their respective nations over a collective 11 years of guidance, Irish and Australian rugby saw the end of an era in Japan as two men who had shaped a new direction for both countries walk off into the sunset – for now.
It was not only a weekend that saw a changing of the managerial guard, as after 14 years and 124 caps, prop Rory Best played his final game in an Ireland shirt but leaves as a two-time Six Nations Grand Slam and four-time Triple Crown winner.
As the 37-year-old Northern Irishman bid an emotional farewell in Oita on Sunday, Best does so as one of the icons of not only Irish rugby but as a player who resides in the upper echelons of appearances in the global game.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-finals take place on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 of October, kick-off 9:00 am UK time.
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