Tuesday, 27 October 2015

World Cup Semi-Finals - Review

n a weekend of contrasting but enthralling rugby, we've whittled it down from a mini-Rugby-Championship to a mini-but-very-f*cking-important Bledisloe Cup game.  Depressing for the rest of the World if you stop to think about it, but also very, very exciting.

New Zealand 20 - 18 South Africa

In sharp contrast to the free-flowing exhibition of total rugby that we saw last week underneath a closed roof in Cardiff, this time the All Blacks engaged in an ugly arm-wrestle underneath the grey, wet autumnal West London skies - but it was no less engaging to watch as the South Africans put up the sternest test for the World Champions yet.  And by stern, I mean physical - bone-jarringly, wince-and-cover-your-delicate-areas physical.

Looking through the line-ups, you could see that the experience factor - and thus the big-game mentality - was weighted heavily in favour of the men in black, especially in the backline where the wily old veterans Carter, Nonu and Smith would face up against the new kids on the block for the Springboks, in the shape of Pollard, De Allende and Kriel.  But, bizarrely, for most of the first half, it was the South Africans who looked to have taken the game by the scruff of the neck., despite an ominous early score from the Kiwis as they attacked the short-side to allow Richie McCaw to float a delightful, borderline-forward pass to Jerome Kaino, who crashed past De Jager to dive over in the corner.  Aside from that, however, it was a case of the Springboks looking generally more threatening then they did last week against the Welsh, with De Allende and Kriel both making good yards, and forcing their illustrious opponents into conceding silly penalties.  With Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen winning the breakdown battle, even Saint McCaw found himself on the wrong end of the referee's whistle which, coupled with a number of scrum penalties, kept the champs on the back foot for most of the half.  The Springboks were unlucky not to score a five-pointer themselves, but they did force a yellow-card to Kaino after the giant flanker cynically kicked the ball away from an offside position.  With Hendre Pollard deadly off the tee, the Boks held a 12 - 7 lead and a one-man advantage going into the break.

However, as many have found out, All Black generosity tends not to last.  Stingy gits.  Coming out early to lay the law down to one another as the rain began to plummet from the sky, it was clear Steve Hansen had brought out the hair-dryer for his half-time address - and boy did his team respond.  Despite being a man down, the Kiwis took advantage of some wayward kicking from hand by Pollard - which became a theme in the game in the second half - to set up camp in South African territory.  Firstly, Carter nailed a drop-goal to bring his team within two, before good pressure and hands by Ma'a Nonu put substitute Beauden Barrett into the corner for a well-deserved try, superbly converted by Carter.  It got worse for the Boks as Bryan Habana, still searching for a record-breaking try, was retrospectively shown yellow for a deliberate ruck infringement, meaning that South Africa were in that place that nobody wants to be - behind on the scoreboard and on the player count against the All Blacks.  To their credit, the Springboks weathered the storm and a penalty from Pollard and Pat Lambie sandwiched a crucial one for Carter, which was awarded against Eben Etzebeth for brainlessly going off his feet in a ruck.  The reigning champions rode out the final 10 minutes, however, with supreme poise and control to finish the game 18 - 20 up and book themselves a real shot at becoming the first side ever to retain the World Cup.

The All Black machine just keeps on rolling.

Man of the Match:  Dan Carter.  The control he showed - especially in the second half when his side needed to play rugby in the right areas - was absolutely crucial and demonstrated why he is such a complete player.  People often say, in the argument of great fly-halves, that Wilko was the better tactician and points-accumulator whilst Carter is the more natural attacker, but the drop-goal and crucial touchline conversion would have had even Jonny feeling pretty chuffed with himself.  Francois Louw also deserves a mention for an epic display in a losing cause.

Argentina 15 - 29 Australia

There is always a danger, in any sport - and in particular in a World Cup - of getting a bit carried away.  Perhaps 'believing your own hype' may be a bit strong, but certainly we've seen it a fair bit this tournament - for example, England, upon hearing that they may have one of the most dangerous back three in the tournament following the warm-up internationals, decided to lob the ball wide at every opportunity against Fiji and consequently gave their wingers a bit of a battering.  And Argentina, after tearing the Irish a new one last weekend with a scintillating display of fast, ambitious and clinical rugby, may have fallen into the same trap against the Wallabies on Sunday.

Straight from the off, it became clear that they were going to try and take the game to the Australians - admirable stuff, but it has to be done in the right places in knock-out rugby.  A highly telegraphed inside-ball 30 metres out offers few benefits to the attacking side, but Rob Simmons certainly got the best deal as he snaffled the pass and galloped over for a try inside 80 seconds.  Nicholas Sanchez got his side on the board with 3 points after a sharp break by Marcelo Bosch, but otherwise it was looking a bit too straightforward for the men in gold, as Adam Ashley-Cooper waltzed in off first phase just five minutes later.  I thought Tuculet could have had him covered, but the full back seemed to give up bizarrely early.  Unlike last week, Bernard Foley had his kicking boots on, too, and nailed the conversion from out wide to give the favourites a commanding 14 - 3 lead.

It was quickly becoming apparent that the major difference this week was that the Wallaby defence and breakdown was not as submissive as a particularly soppy Labrador, as the Irish were last week, and consequently the Pumas were struggling to get any quick, front-foot ball - especially with David Pocock causing customary mayhem at every ruck.  Luckily for the Pumas, the scrum was looking in a particularly dominant mood and was giving Argentina a foot-hold, allowing Sanchez to claw back three points, but the rest of the half was dominated by bad news.  A yellow-card for Lavinini for a no-arms tackle of Folau, the withdrawal of key men Creevy and Imhoff due to injury, and Ashley-Cooper's second try - set up by a gorgeous wide pass by Giteau - left the Argentineans hanging on at the break, despite another Sanchez penalty to bring the score 9 - 19.

10 points didn't seem a bad gap, in all honesty, after they'd been outscored by three tries to zip, and to their credit the Pumas came out with real discipline and belief in the second half.  With the Wallaby set-piece creaking and the Argentineans starting to works some phases, Sanchez added two penalties to one from Foley to bring the South Americans within one score going into the final 10 minutes.  They couldn't possibly come back - could they?  The answer turned out to be no - after being bumped back time and again due to a combination of their own handling mistakes and superb work from the Aussie loose forwards, Drew Mitchell decided to go beserk and beat half the Argentina team on a mazy run to set up a hat-trick score for Ashley-Cooper.  There was a suspicion that the final, loose pass went forward, but it would have been harsh on Mitchell after such an incredible break.  It put the Argentina dream to bed once more, with the final score at 15 - 29.

Heartbreak for the Pumas but, considering where they were just over 12 months ago, it's almost the ultimate resurgence for the Wallabies.

Man of the Match:  David Pocock.  Once again, the Brumbies man showed his worth with 4 turnovers and probably a number of penalties which haven't been counted on top of that.  One defensive slip up early on aside, it was a nearly flawless performance by the man with biceps the size of bowling balls.  A special mention to Scott Fardy, who was epic in defence, and Nicholas Sanchez, too.


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