TOKYO, 28 Oct – To describe their expressions as a thousand-yard stare would put a limit on their boundless misery. As the Wales team trudged off – battered and bewildered at how yet another Rugby World Cup semi-final had slipped from their grasp – such was the emptiness of their gazes, the blankness in the eyes, their despair seemed to radiate far beyond the mere confines of the International Stadium Yokohama.
Twenty-four hours earlier, it had been New Zealand experiencing the same depth of soul-searching. Their blanket of invincibility, carefully sewn over 18 matches and 12 years of Rugby World Cup dominance, was ruthlessly torn away by a hungry England team bent on carving out their own piece of history.
Similar emotions, two contrasting matches. As England and South Africa begin preparations for Saturday’s showpiece, while Wales and New Zealand are left to console themselves with the bronze final, here are the main analytical points from two fascinating semi-finals.
Perfect Pollard hits his spots at the right time
From the opening minutes of the Wales-South Africa semi-final, it was clear that it would be a war of attrition. Instead of the free-flowing rugby so evident in Wales’ thrilling win over Australia in the group stages, this would be a game likely decided by penalties, and the nerves of the kickers.
It was always going to be an intriguing contest. While Wales’s Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Patchell are all world-class kickers, in Handre Pollard, South Africa had arguably the finest practitioner from the tee in the game. Between 2016 and 2019, Pollard’s ability – especially in kicking from wide areas – meant that South Africa were the leading nation at scoring conversions going into the Rugby World Cup.
But before this match, the normally reliable Pollard had not been on song in Japan. While his penalty success rate was a respectable 75 per cent (six from eight), he was down at 55 per cent (six from 11) for conversions, giving him an overall kicking success rate of 63 per cent.
In a game of fine margins, however, he returned to his very best. While Wales will rue the eight penalties conceded, Pollard produced a nerveless performance. Overall, he kicked one conversion, and four penalties – including the decisive 76th-minute score, below – missing none.
England rip up the history books to stun All Blacks
Having lost 15 of their past 16 games against New Zealand, and all three of their previous Rugby World Cup encounters (1991, 1995 and 1999), England always knew it would take a special performance to upset an All Blacks team regarded as one of the most dominant in world sport.
But they set the tone right from the start, with Manu Tuilagi’s try inside two minutes the fastest ever scored against the All Blacks in a World Cup match.
New Zealand never quite recovered, bullied into submission by the sheer ferocity of the English tackling, relentless waves of percussive hits which left them unable to exert their usual tempo on the match. As against Australia, Sam Underhill was a colossus in the centre of the field, once again topping the tackle charts with 16.
Trailing 10-0 at half-time, the All Blacks looked almost desperate, England’s physical dominance forcing them to attempt impossible offloads and gift turnovers. You have to go all the way back to RWC 1991 to find the last time they were shut out in the opening half of a World Cup match.
Even after Ardie Savea’s opportunistic second-half try which cut the deficit to 13-7, they struggled to find their fluency. Overall New Zealand conceded 11 penalties to England’s six, George Ford keeping his composure to punish them by landing four kicks out of five.
It meant that England are now just the second team in history to defeat both the Wallabies and All Blacks at the same RWC, after South Africa who achieved the same on the way to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in 1995.
A statistic that England fans will be eager to take as an omen.