The World Cup is over for Wales and the tournament is down to the final two. Geraint Powell’s money is on England to overcome South Africa, but he still questions whether a different tactical approach from Wales might have got them to Saturday’s showpiece.
We always know what is coming with an England versus South Africa Test match, and the only questions for tomorrow’s World Cup Final – a repeat of the 2007 final – and clash of the forward power games is which side (if either) achieves physical dominance and how they utilise that dominance.
Will favourites England be able to achieve good front foot ball and get around the Springboks’ blitz defence and expose defensive weaknesses out wide in the way that Wales were not?
Or will it turn into an arm-wrestle stalemate, the Springboks suppressing England’s game plan in a match dominated by penalties and maybe even drop goals from Owen Farrell and Handre Pollard?
England reached the final, and also secured the favourites tag, with their most complete performance for a number of years. They comprehensively outplayed New Zealand in their 19-7 semi-final win.
They completely dominated the gain-line and regularly secured good, go-forward ball for their numerous big carriers.
Is this a sign that England are peaking at exactly the right time, or has the curse of another team playing “their final” at the semi-final of a World Cup stage struck again?
Without in any way detracting from England’s outstanding performance, the reality is that this New Zealand squad has at times been showing signs of creaking throughout 2019, including in the opening quarter of their pool match against the Springboks.
Kieran Read, although still their talismanic captain, has been a fading force at No.8 and especially since his 2017 back operation.
At lock, Brodie Retallick was rushed back from injury short of fitness, and not just form, and Sam Whitelock has looked a tired player this World Cup and badly in need of his sabbatical semi-break in Japan.
Their match tactics against England did not work.
In particular, controversially sacrificing second openside Sam Cane for lock Scott Barrett at blindside, to add another line-out option in the absence of the unavailable to the All Blacks blindside Liam Squire, did not work.
The line-out did not function and openside Ardie Savea was essentially left alone to counter the dual openside threat of former Osprey Sam Underhill and Tom Curry.
A three-quarters starting line-up including Jack Goodhue, Sevu Reece and George Bridge was unusually short of Test caps for a World Cup defending and tournament favourite team and struggled to offer an attacking threat with the very limited decent ball that their pack did provide them with.
The question of whether the All Blacks prematurely downgraded (e.g. Ben Smith/Ryan Crotty) and discarded (e.g. Owen Franks) players heading into retirement or offshore will no doubt form part of the post-mortem in New Zealand.
The answer may play a significant part in deciding whether Scott Robertson of the Crusaders regional franchise, or whether incumbent current assistant coach Ian Foster, succeeds the retiring Steve Hansen at the helm of the All Blacks.
The other semi-final saw the Springboks overcome Wales 19-16 in the closing minutes in the type of forward arm-wrestle that admirers of free flowing rugby fear will be repeated tomorrow.
The match was played carrying around the fringes on the gain-line and played in the skies, as both sides showered the opposition with high balls in the hope of gaining territory and reclaiming possession, instead of carrying into contact with the accompanying breakdown risk (turnover and penalty).
Wales nowadays always kick long, and back their line defence, rather than kick off the park and defend opposition line-out driving mauls. But these dual kicking tactics and lack of big ball carriers did leave precious little opportunity to attack through the outside channels.
On the rare occasions that Wales did get outside the Springboks blitz, Jonathan Davies looked dangerous and Josh Adams scored a levelling try from a brave call not to take three points.
In reality, Wales did not have the ball carriers to dent the Springboks defence and thereby give the Welsh backs the fast ball they required to attack out wide.
The Welsh scrum at this World Cup was always been a holding job, and even that was not possible following the early injury departure of Tomas Francis.
But Warren Gatland’s Wales are nowadays a very difficult team to beat, and they were never going to risk being badly beaten through playing reckless expansive rugby well behind the gain line. They earn the right to go wide, or they don’t go wide.
The match was essentially decided at a breakdown with just a few minutes to go by a controversial refereeing decision, with Franco Mostert avoiding being penalised for being offside and Francois Louw instead securing the vital penalty as Alun Wyn Jones clung on to the ball with the jackal Louw protected from being cleaned out.
This secured the field position for the Springboks to secure the winning penalty from man-of-the-match Handre Pollard.
Welsh hearts were broken again this decade at the semi-final stage, and South Africans breathed a sigh of relief and prepared for the final.
That left New Zealand and Wales to contest the third place play-off, or bronze medal, match this morning – the most unwanted and unloved match in tournament rugby union, bar none.
Surely, it would make more sense to play a plate competition amongst the best teams that failed to qualify for the quarter finals of the main competition? So, either a semi-final and final for the four teams finishing third in the pools, or a quarter-final, semi-final and final amongst the eight teams finishing third and fourth in the pools?
The result of this match was never going to be in doubt, and many Welsh fans will be relieved that the final score was only a 40-17 defeat.
New Zealand fielded a side that many considered to be superior, especially in their backs, than the side that lost to England.
Cue social media jokes about the All Blacks keeping the likes of Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane fresh for the bronze model match!
Wales fielded a makeshift side, the elite player pool now exhausted of fresh experienced Test quality availability, a combination of battered bodies from the Springboks match five days earlier and younger and more inexperienced players getting valuable experience for the future.
Steve Hansen and Read, amongst others, received a suitable send-off into retirement or life offshore.
The Wales v Babarians match in Cardiff on 30th November – although he will be coaching the Baa Baas – was always going to be the final goodbye match and occasion for Gatland.
That will be the time for the majority of fans to give thanks for the stability at Test level during his era, after the weakness of the 1990s and the inconsistency of the 2000s, and notwithstanding the numerous unresolved problems below the Test team.
As for the final, England will start as favourites against South Africa after their demolition of favourites New Zealand last weekend.
But playing South Africa is invariably a very different 80 minutes of rugby to playing New Zealand and, if England do not get off to their recent habit of a good start, anything could happen in this match and all bets are off.
If the scores are level on the hour mark, it would then be a brave punter who bet against the Springboks.
My gut instinct is that England will win, because of their big ball-carriers providing the platform to enable them to attack wide, but not with the sort of conviction that I would expect to feel given the manner of their win over the All Blacks.
When it comes to World Cup finals, as we saw in tight matches in 1995 and 2007, the Springboks and their power game is not easy to overcome.