By Neil Leverett
- England humble defending champion All Blacks with 19-7 win for the ages to reach Rugby World Cup final
- Wales’ fortune runs short as South Africa edge Warren Gatland’s men to set up 2007 finale rematch
- Defeats signal further two managerial exits, after Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika walked off into sunset last weekend
YOKOHAMA, JAPAN – After England and South Africa booked a 2007 finale rematch this weekend, what did we learn from the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-finals in Yokohama?
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The Rose blooms…
Such was the impressive nature of England’s defeat of New Zealand – a side many thought of as now simply unbeatable under the Rugby World Cup umbrella – it is hard to gauge the gravity of The Rose’s win and blossom from potential Webb Ellis trophy recipients to now favourite to win a second World Cup at the Yokohama International Stadium this weekend.
As Eddie Jones‘ men have flourished in Japan, the four-year arc the Australian Head Coach had pinned down has been timed to near perfection, and on Saturday, both he and England could again climb the summit of world rugby.
During a performance for the ages England will regard as perhaps their finest day in the tournament’s history – aside from 2003’s heroics in Sydney – A laboring Owen Farrell nevertheless led his charges formidably, from the opening wry retort at the Haka, to bleeding for his side whilst clearly nursing a slight knock.
From the moment Manu Tuilagi went over for a rampaging English pack, Jones would have watched as his side dominate the two-time reigning champions, who arguably made just the one mistake for the duration in Jamie George‘s errant line-out for Ardie Savea‘s try.
With the reliable boot of George Ford carrying England to a safe points distance also, the swashbuckling Maro Itoje had once again won the plaudits, for a sheer bloody-minded showing the 03′ winning squad would have doffed their caps to.
Having come of age during the Japanese odyssey, just one step remains for England and with a rematch of the 2007 final in Paris with South Africa just days away, the Rose’s 12-year journey from fallen champions could come full circle in glorious fashion.
…the flame goes out
As one corner of the British Isles were jubilant, the Welsh flame was extinguished after a war of attrition in Yokohama, with Handre Pollard‘s penalty kick five minutes from time the decisive moment in a narrow 19-16 win.
Having rode of a wave of good fortune since their entry into the knockout stages, the favours of the outgoing Warren Gatland seemed to wane, with an in-disciplined Welsh unit failing to get to grips – literally – with the South Africans.
Despite clinging onto the coat-tails of Rassie Erasmus‘ side after being dominated at the breakdown and a rash of subsequent penalties from the boot of Pollard and then the contest’s first score of the game via Damian De Allende, Wales’ wide threat remained and when Josh Adams scored with 15 minutes to play, Welsh hopes were re-ignited.
With Dan Biggar having been taken off due after another head-related stoppage, the script seemed written for Leigh Halfpenny‘s ultimate redemption. With the scores locked at 16-16, drop goals became the chief threat for the respective teams.
As Wales were forced further back however, referee Jerome Garces awarded a 76th-minute penalty to the Springboks and as Pollard made it five from five, South Africa played for time and book their place in a third World Cup final.
In their third semi-final, fortune’s moniker of the same guise failed to live up to its’ name, and as Gatland contemplates a second bronze medal match for his swansong – with the beaten All Blacks – the process must begin all over for a new era in Welsh rugby.
Record evades All Blacks
Yes the world is still revolving. It was an occurrence after an eight-year vice-like grip on rugby’s biggest prize that few imagined ever happening again; An All Black defeat.
After their emphatic dismissal of Ireland in the last eight, the Kieran Read-led juggernaut looked to be hitting full steam as it approached the crossroads of sporting history. However with the station in sight, Steve Hansen‘s men hit the buffers in an incomparable loss few have before witnessed this decade.
Denied the tantalising prospect of a record third successive World Cup win, New Zealand may have been robbed of a place in the sporting annuls, but even in defeat, only a fool would write off their chances of regaining their crown in 2023.
Grit sees Springboks home
A clash between Wales and South Africa was never likely to a classic and so it played out, as the Springboks throttled the red attack in similar fashion to how they had silence the impassioned Brave Blossoms in the quarter-finals.
With both XVs having been forced to make do without their livewire presences in Liam Williams and Cheslin Kolbe, the two team’s collective hands were perhaps forced, but it was South Africa who scrummaged their way to the final in Yokohama against England, through sheer grit.
As the two-time Rainbow nation winners came out on top in the clash of Southern versus Northern hemisphere champions, scrum-half Faf de Klerk had grabbed the throat of the Welsh dragon and extinguished its’ flame as the Sale Shark looked akin to the last man standing on a battle field.
Erasmus is primed for his own date with destiny in 2019 this weekend, and if the Springbok pack are to lift their third Webb Ellis trophy this weekend, the very same grit will be needed to stop a powerful, vibrant and energetic England from becoming champions of the world.
End of an era part 2
Just as the quarter-finals had signalled the end of the eras of Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika for Ireland and Australia respectively, so too did this weekend’s defeats for beaten semi-finalists.
With both Gatland and Hansen having indicated they would step down after the tournament, both Kiwi stewards will move on to pastures new. Whilst Gatland ends a 12-year association with the WRU and looks ahead to a third Lions tour in 2021, it is the void left by his compatriot that could be hardest to fill.
Ironically, the Welsh coach at the 2003 World Cup, Hansen’s impact has been felt since 2004 when the 60-year-old joined mentor Graham Henry as Assistant Coach with the All Blacks, and who aided Henry to victory in 2011, before then taking over and leading his men to defending their crown in England and Wales four years ago.
15 years in sport seems like a veritable lifetime, and as New Zealand enter a new era potentially without skipper Read also, it will not only signal a serious upheaval in management, but All Black rugby could change as we now know it in the coming months.
The 2019 Rugby World final between England and South Africa takes place at the Yokohama International Stadium in Japan on Saturday, kick-off time 9am UK time.
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