Last weekend saw the first round of the 2023 Rugby World Cup knockout stage and provided nail-biting viewing. This weekend promises more of the same. As the two top ranked teams came crashing out of the quarterfinals, the surviving four will no doubt deliver two enthralling encounters.
SF1 – Friday, 20 October 20:00 Argentina v New Zealand Stade de France, Saint-Denis
The first match brings perhaps two surprising appearances for both Los Pumas and the All Blacks. Both coming off underdog victories in the first knockout match, there’s no doubt the teams will strive to reach the heights of their previous fixtures.
Most definitely remaining the underdogs in their next fixture, Argentina will look to replicate the success of their footballing counterparts by claiming a World Cup in another sport. Whilst reaching the semi-final stage thanks to the efforts of a decent squad, Los Pumas haven’t exactly set the world alight with their performances. A narrow victory over Wales, however, did book them a chance to reach the pinnacle of world rugby, matching their highest finish since 2015. Los Pumas do face some tough odds though, only having won 2 out of 36 all-time matches against New Zealand. Nonetheless, there are shimmers of hope in star players Mateo Carreras with his electric speed and agility, but also emerging stars like powerhouse prop, Thomas Gallo. Against the Kiwis, Argentina will also need a captain’s performance from Leicester Tigers hooker, Julian Montoya, who previously led his club side to a premiership title. Looking at the stats, Los Pumas have the highest average ruck speed of 3.35 seconds but that’s before they faced Ardie Savea and the rest of the All Black pack that shutdown the breakdown against the Irish. Unfortunately, Argentina lag behind the remaining teams, ranking fourth in gainline success at 51%, collision success at 37%, and tackle success at 84%. So, what does this all mean for Los Pumas? The hard truth is they face some tough odds against an All-Black side that dismantled the tournament’s best side in Ireland last round. There is no doubt, however, that if the stars shine through, Argentina will bring the fight to New Zealand.
One to watch: Julian Montoya
Where to start after that win against Ireland? The All Blacks answered any doubts that were cast in the last round to make them huge favourites for this semi-final tie. Stellar performances from Ardie Savea and Sam Cane in the back row led the way to a decisive victory, and the two stars of world rugby will look to continue their top-class form against Los Pumas. This team is no short of grit too, defying the tournament’s favourites a win despite being down to 14 men for 20 minutes of the quarterfinal. Looking ahead to this week though, the All Blacks will once again use their experience to push further in the competition. The stats further cement New Zealand as clear favourites: out of the four remaining teams, the side had the most carries (131.8), metres made (694.4), clean breaks (14.0 – double that of the next best), defenders beaten (35.6), offloads (8.2), gainline success (63%), collision success (41%), and positive outcomes (76%), down to turning the ball over the least (11.8). And if that’s not enough to defend Kiwi confidence, a 92% historical success rate against Argentina builds a one-sided picture. But will this over-confidence harm the All Blacks’ chances? It will be vital not to under-estimate an Argentinian side that, whilst not demonstrating their full strength yet, have the squad and coaching staff to cause an upset. Key to success will be replicating the control of the set-piece and breakdowns, which was led by Ardie Savea against Ireland. If the same All Black side that faced Ireland turns up in the semi-final, the Argentinians will have their hands full.
One to watch: Ardie Savea
SF2 – Saturday, 21 October 20:00 England v South Africa Stade de France, Saint-Denis
The second semi-final is a 2019 Rugby World Cup Final rematch and a chance at redemption for England. Owen Farrell’s side are the underdogs, but perhaps this label will provide an incentive for an unforgettable upset. In their way, the Springboks. The now tournament favourites will undoubtedly be confident in victory.
The tournament’s only remaining unbeaten and northern-hemisphere side, England look to reach their second successive final. A close match versus Fiji in the quarters did raise English heart rates but performances from Ben Earl and Courtney Lawes secured the win. What’s become apparent this tournament is that no matter the performance, England seems to find a way to win: the side was the only one to win its quarter-final with a worse red zone efficiency than their opponents, scoring 2.4 points per entry to Fiji’s three in a 30-24 win in Marseille. England also had the lowest number of metres made (468.8) and offloads (5.4) of the top four teams. While they had the second most linebreaks (seven), it was only 0.8 more than the fourth-placed Springboks and half as many as New Zealand. But, whilst team stats might not favour the English, individual performances have brought team wins. Number eight Ben Earl leads England in carries (48), metres made (372), linebreaks (5), and defenders beaten (17), with full-back Marcus Smith coming in second in all of those categories – 32 carries, 325 metres made, four linebreaks, and 13 defenders defeated. Clearly, though, it will need to be a team performance to get past South Africa, who hold the most formidable depth in their squad. Team selection for coach Steve Borthwick will no doubt be crucial in crafting a semi-final win, again juggling three fly-halves in Farrell, Ford, and Smith. The Smith experiment, being put at fullback versus Fiji, perhaps didn’t play out amazingly, and heads were turned at the complete omission of Freddie Steward. Questions therefore remain on what team will be put out to face the Boks, but the selected XV will attempt to pose a challenge.
One to watch: Ben Earl
Winning perhaps one of the best games of rugby for a while, South Africa smashed through the hosts France in the quarterfinals. Cheslin Kolbe’s charge-down of a Thomas Ramos conversion attempt was critical in South Africa’s 29-28 win, but the team’s overall performance in the quarterfinal was equally outstanding. Controlling the scrum, and capitalising efficiently on counter-attacks, the Springboks deserved their win over an impressive second-ranked French side. Most notably too, the Bok defence has proved tough to beat in the tournament: the defending champions have the most tackles in the competition thus far (162), and the most dominant tackles (14.4), 4.8 more than the next quarterfinal team. An individual performance from Kolbe also led the way, making 317 metres at an average of 16.7 metres per carry, the highest of any player. The role of the Saffer bench will again come into play, with the likes of RG Snyman and Kwagga Smith putting in huge performances in the second half. The South Africans are the favourites here but will face a tough opponent in England, who will not want to be rolled over and have plenty of motivation following their last 2019 cup-final loss. In order to reach the final this year, however, the Boks will need another tactical masterclass from coaches Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus, supported by captain Siya Kolisi. Paris will once again play host to a titanic clash before the final next weekend, in which the Springboks, much like the All Blacks, should not face too many challenges if they replicate the standard of their quarterfinal performance.
One to watch: Cheslin Kolbe
ITV will be showing both semi-final games live from France.