So after the most pulsating round of quarter-final matches in the history of the World Cup, the Southern hemisphere sides maintained bragging rights over their rivals from the North, with Argentina and New Zealand enjoying emphatic wins while South Africa and Australia clawed back victory from the jaws of defeat. With a potential final just 80 minutes away the stakes could not be higher for the players.
South Africa v New Zealand
A mouth-watering semi-final between the winners of the two previous tournaments, Saturday’s match represents another step up for both sides. Having recovered from a poor start to the tournament to put themselves right back in contention for the trophy, South Africa come into the match in buoyant mood after a morale-boosting victory over a dogged Welsh side who – despite a catalogue of injuries – had been one of the form teams of the tournament in the early stages. Yet they come up against the reigning champions who despite some below-par performances in the pool stages, produced one of the most astonishing results in World Cup history as they walloped an abysmal French side 62-13, in about as one-sided a knockout match you are likely to find in any sport. A performance to strike fear into any rugby team, the All Blacks have well and truly arrived at this tournament and with their key men such as Retallick, Read and Savea leading the charge (quite literally in Savea’s case) it remains difficult to see any side having the firepower to get past this current All Blacks team. However in South Africa, New Zealand come up against the side who over the past couple of years have always seemed their nearest challengers at the top of the world game. Having gone an unprecedented 23 test matches unbeaten over a near two-year spell, it was South Africa who ended New Zealand’s historic run with a narrow 27-25 victory in the Rugby Championship last year. A side that mixes the experience of Schalk Burger, Bryan Habana and Fourie Du Preez with the youthful exuberance of Lood De Jager, Handre Pollard and Damian de Allende, you sense that if any team can stop New Zealand, it will probably be the Springboks. Fresh from their mesmerising performance last week, New Zealand go into the match as clear favourites against a South Africa team who will need to play a more expansive game than they showed against a tired Welsh side. Heyneke Meyer’s side are likely to try and turn the match into a war of attrition with their usual power-based game, and will need their quarter-final match-winner Du Preez to reproduce his heroics from last week to negate the influence of the quick-thinking Aaron Smith. The match many have been hoping for, expect a tougher game than some are predicting for the All Blacks, who despite their previous performance, are all too aware of the capabilities of this Springbok side.
Australia v Argentina
Having produced a scintillating performance of attacking rugby that saw them dispatch the reigning Six Nations champions from the tournament, Argentina come into the semi-finals of this World Cup knowing that perhaps unlike 2007 they have a genuine chance of being crowned World champions. However to achieve that goal, they must first get past an Australia side who sneaked into the last four in dramatic circumstances. Having needed a last-minute Bernard Foley penalty to come from behind to beat an inspired Scottish team last week, the Wallabies got their get-out-of-jail-free card last week and know that much improvement will be needed to get past a formidable Argentinian side. Argentina, like Australia, have of course been in this position before. In 2007, led by talismanic leaders in the shape of Felipe Contepomi, Agustin Pichot and Mario Ledesma, the Pumas reached the semi-finals where after performances which captivated the attention of the rugby world, they succumbed to the eventual champions South Africa who ran out 37-13 winners. Where-as in 2007 a handful of world-class players inspired their team-mates around them, in 2015 a team full of world-class players facing fierce competition from their countrymen for their jerseys, has emerged and will be taken seriously by an Australia side who have seen what this side are capable of. Having tested themselves in the Rugby Championship over the last few years – earning their first tournament victory against the Wallabies last year – Argentina have become a more well-rounded team with a scintillating backline full of talents such as Nicolas Sanchez and Santiago Cordero mixed with the strength and wily experience of men like Marcos Ayerza and Juan Fernandez-Lobbe. Having produced their best performance of the tournament to get past Ireland, this Argentinian team will need to reproduce that type of performance if they are to get past an Australian side who – despite their struggles last week – have looked like the form team in this World Cup. A team known for their attacking skill, Australia have found some new steel in the shape of a dominant pack led by the two Scotts, Sio and Fardy, and the ever-reliable David Pocock. With Genia and Foley providing the ammunition to the likes of Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau and Israel Folau outside them, there seems few weaknesses in their current game. However, the Wallabies were brought back down to earth by the Scots last week and know they must not get complacent. Another tough match to call, if Australia can nullify the creative influence of the Pumas backline, you sense that they have that bit more game-nous about them than their opponents to progress to their first final in twelve years. Yet having made uncharacteristic individual errors that led to a couple of Scottish tries, any repeat of those sort of mistakes will be seized on by this ruthless Argentinian attack.