YOKOHAMA, 25 Oct – A preview of the semi-final between New Zealand and England, which kicks off at 17.00 on Saturday at International Stadium Yokohama.
The Big Picture
It is a contest that needs no hype, one that would certainly have graced the final, but Eddie Jones has given his own inimitable and enjoyable spin on the epic occasion to make it sound as if his England team are nothing-to-lose underdogs ready to snarl at the greatest side in the annals of team sport, the All Blacks.
Of course, this will not do. It actually has the look of a delightfully poised duel between two teams who have both won their past six matches, who both made emphatic statements with their record-breaking quarter-final wins and who were separated by just one point in their latest meeting a year ago.
Yet in some ways, Jones has it right. The head-to-head has been so overwhelmingly one-sided over the past 16 years, with the All Blacks winning 15 of the past 16 contests including that 16-15 comeback win at Twickenham last November, that an England victory would fly in the face of World Cup and rugby history.
For this New Zealand team, fashioned by Steve Hansen, the man Jones has been flattering this week as their greatest coach of all, has not lost a World Cup match for 12 years and the evidence of the dominant 46-14 victory over Ireland, their 18th successive victory in the tournament, was that he is bowing out having built another fabulous All Blacks' creation. New Zealand are the only team England have never beaten in a Rugby World Cup fixture.
The @EnglandRugby team to face @AllBlacks in their #RWC2019 semi-final at #RWCYokohama— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 24, 2019
One change to their starting XV that defeated Australia in the quarter-finals. #ENGvNZL pic.twitter.com/bPolRaDnYt
Their youthful Crusaders-dominated backline attacked with remarkable fluidity and invention against Ireland while old masters, such as captain Kieran Read and second-row Sam Whitelock, seemed wholly rejuvenated.
Brodie Retallick, after half an hour’s action in 12 weeks, was back to his spoiling, dominating best, while nobody is questioning the wisdom of switching Beauden Barrett to being a freewheeling full-back when Richie Mo'unga is controlling affairs so beautifully at No.10.
Yet all along, it has felt as if England are the team that New Zealand have been most worried about and by handing Australia their biggest World Cup defeat, 40-16, Jones's men showcased a power-packed and expansive game that has deeply impressed the All Blacks.
"They can play very direct - scrum, maul, lineout, all those things - but they've also got quality players who can change the game with the bounce of a ball or a back strike move," noted Whitelock.
England number eight Billy Vunipola, for one, believes in Jones, who has beaten the All Blacks five times as a coach including the 2003 World Cup semi-final when he was piloting his native Australia. "He always knows how to do it. He has the formula. Trust in Eddie and hopefully we can produce the performance," he said.
There is so much to savour in the contests within a contest; the war of words in the build-up was enormously entertaining but it will not compare with Retallick jousting with the superb Maro Itoje, two No.10s, George Ford and Mo’unga, enjoying a masterly tactical kicking duel, or Jonny May's virtuosity coming up against the genius of Beauden Barrett, pictured in action at Twickenham last year.
"Let's hope the game can live up to the hype because if it does, we will be sending a message around the world to rugby lovers and people seeing it for the first time 'wow, what a wonderful game'," says Hansen. "Let's hope it's one for the ages."
Form guide (most recent matches first)
New Zealand: WWWWW
Played 41 – New Zealand 33W, England 7W, Drawn 1
In the spotlight
England's Tom Curry was hailed this week by team-mate Ben Youngs as "an unbelievably special" player and his partnership with Sam Underhill - the youngest flankers to start in tandem in a World Cup knockout match, at an average of 22 years 107 days - has been instrumental in their impressive progression. Now, though, having outplayed Australian luminaries David Pocock and Michael Hooper, they have to grapple with a reshaped All Blacks back-row being inspired by the all-action Ardie Savea, who might just be the best flanker in the game at present, Scott Barrett providing the muscle in his first blindside start and number eight Read, who is playing his best rugby since his back surgery at the end of 2017.
Ford has regained his fly-half place in England’s starting line-up, with Owen Farrell being shifted into a powerful midfield alongside Manu Tuilagi, who was instrumental in their last win over the All Blacks seven years ago, while Henry Slade returns to the bench. The Ford-Farrell axis was put back in place for the first time in 14 months in England’s record-breaking pre-tournament win over Ireland and was effective against Tonga and Argentina. The All Blacks have made one tactical switch from the Ireland game, bringing Scott Barrett in at No.6 to give that extra power and an added lineout option while moving the excellent Sam Cane to the bench.
Stats and Trivia
The All Blacks have won all the three matches between the teams at a World Cup and remain the only opponents England have failed to beat at a World Cup.
Farrell has scored more points (60) against New Zealand than any other England player - even Jonny Wilkinson, who is second on 53.
New Zealand have reached the semi-finals in eight of the nine World Cups, failing to make the last four only in 2007 when they were beaten by France in the quarter-finals.
New Zealand’s Barrett brothers have scored 54 points between them at RWC2019 - the youngest Jordie with 31, the oldest Beauden with 13 and Scott with 10.
"New Zealand talk about walking towards pressure - well, this week the pressure is going to be chasing them down the street." - Eddie Jones, England coach
"We know we are under pressure; we don't need Eddie to tell us that. That same pressure is running down the same street that he's on." - Steve Hansen, New Zealand coach