The story so far . . . Geraint Powell says the four best teams have reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, with Wales and England both capable of upsetting the odds and with the belief to do so.
We entered this tournament with many believing this was the most wide open World Cup of all – with up to seven or eight teams viewed as genuine contenders to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on 2nd November.
That’s not to say that all those teams were viewed as capable of beating New Zealand, but that the dominoes could fall in such a way that numerous teams could be the last team left standing and holding the trophy.
A semi-final line-up of New Zealand, England, Wales and South Africa would suggest that the tournament has proven to be a little more elitist.
The pool stage ended with the controversy over Typhoon Hagibis and a disconcerting lack of pre-quarter-finals typhoon resilience in terms of protecting competition integrity.
This controversy has hardly been diminished by the perceived over-performances by England, New Zealand and France in the quarter-finals, relative to their opponents.
Pool A was unexpectedly dominated by the host nation, Japan, with their expansive offloading rugby pleasing for the neutral and the romantic. They condemned a rather stale Ireland to a quarter-final against defending champions and favourites New Zealand and they condemned Scotland to the ignominy of a pool exit.
Pool B was decided by the early head-to-head clash between New Zealand and South Africa, the All Blacks claiming the spoils despite a strong opening quarter from the Springboks. Due to a cancelled match, Tier 1 Italy were denied the opportunity to save their World Cup campaign against the All Blacks.
Pool C was not unexpectedly won by the “power game plus” of England, albeit with the caveat of their head-to-head clash against runners-up France being cancelled. Argentina was the Tier 1 casualty of this scenario of three won’t go into two.
Pool D was decided by the pivotal clash between Wales and Australia, with Wales clinging on after a big lead and avoiding being in the same half of the knockout draw as England and New Zealand.
The quarter-final played out as most neutrals expected, in terms of the results if not necessarily in terms of the performances.
England were able to steamroller their way past Australia 40-16, the Wallabies gifting too many soft tries – including two interception try passes – and with a curious exit strategy resulting in their playing too much rugby from too deep against England.
The Wallabies momentarily looked to be back in the match at 16-17, but England didn’t panic and two further tries and the reliable boot of Owen Farrell saw England pull clear again and comfortably seal the win.
England’s semi-final opponent on Saturday, New Zealand, proceeded to ominously demolish, 46-14, an Irish team that had already lost to Japan and which had increasingly looked a shadow of the team of 2018.
If there was any doubt that New Zealand remain the team to beat, that doubt no longer exists.
Yet another World Cup quarter-final exit for the Irish, the Test side once again failing to live-up to the strength of the domestic provincial game when it really matters.
Wales have been far from convincing at times in this World Cup, a team that has always been “defence plus” in the Warren Gatland/Shaun Edwards coaching era currently looking particularly limited in attack.
But Wales keep grinding out the wins, 19 on the trot now if you discount the four experimental warm-up games for this tournament.
Not only has Gatland had to re-adjust to the loss of an anticipated World Cup team spine that looked at the end of 2017 to include Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau and Rhys Webb, but also to the loss of Gareth Anscombe, Ellis Jenkins and Cory Hill.
His prop selections, with Rob Evans and Samson Lee ruthlessly being omitted from the squad, would be filed by many ahead of the Springboks under “courageous”.
The story of the Welsh 20-19 quarter-final win over France is really the story of the French defeat.
A real sense of Welsh/French World Cup knockout rugby déjà vu, as the better team on the day was reduced to 14 men and lost by a single point.
It was the most ridiculously French way of losing a match and exiting.
A couple of relatively easy kicks at goal missed by Romain Ntamack and then, when in control of the match and with a nine point lead, another relatively easy kick at goal spurned and an immediate moment of absolute madness from lock Sébastien Vahaamahina – the easiest red card that referee Jaco Peyper has probably ever issued – changing the dynamics of the match and helping facilitate a Welsh escape.
In the fourth quarter-final, with unfinished business from Brighton at the last World Cup, South Africa ended the host nation’s run and dreams.
Whilst Japan hung on in until half-time, still behind only 5-3 at the break, they were never able to fully recover from conceding such a soft early try and the Springboks gradually slowed the match down and took control in the second half as they squeezed Japan, 26-3, through their set-piece and mauling dominance.
In contrast to the quarter-finals, the semi-finals are two very difficult matches to call.
Rugby World Cup semi-finals in the past have so often provided the best matches of entire tournaments, the attacking hunger to reach the final often in sharp contrast with the disinterest by the teams in the bronze medal match and the defensive fear of losing by the teams in the final.
Given the way they dismantled Ireland, and their clinical counter-attacking ruthlessness upon turnover ball, New Zealand are most people’s favourites to see off the English steamroller in much the same way they withstood the opening quarter blitz of the Springboks in that pool clash.
But any English victory would hardly be described as an upset. Many of these England players figured prominently in the 2017 drawn series between the British and Irish Lions and the All Blacks and, to be frank, England were unlucky to controversially lose 16-17 to the All Blacks at Twickenham last November.
There should be few mental hang-ups, and that counts for much when you are playing the All Blacks.
An equally difficult match to predict is Wales versus South Africa, even though Wales knew exactly what will be coming at them prior to learning of a 6+2 forwards/backs split on the Springboks bench.
You would expect the Springboks to seek to overpower and batter Wales up front and to drive the Welsh into the corners to probe for any weakness and/or ill-discipline.
Wales will need to lift their game considerably from the poor France match performance, but is there a so far elusive 80 minute performance from this Welsh side to conclude the Gatland era with, at a minimum, a World Cup final appearance?
Before the professional era Wales arguably had an even bigger fear of playing the Springboks than of playing the All Blacks, with the first ever Welsh victory not being secured until 1999 (a year after nearly conceding 100 points in Pretoria).
But those days are long gone, with Wales winning the last four clashes between the sides since the Springboks’ narrow 23-19 win in the quarter-finals four years ago.
That said, from his time with Munster, Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus will be familiar with many of the Welsh players.
Much will depend upon whether the selected Welsh centres Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies – who was sorely missed against France – are both reasonably fit and firing on all cylinders.
This will be especially so with Wales losing Liam Williams, although the Springboks will themselves be without Cheslin Kolbe.
The Springbok back three often looked uncomfortable under the high ball against Japan and, as the Welsh have a decent aerial game, they will undoubtedly seek to again test the Springboks in this department.
The appointment of Nigel Owens and Jérôme Garcès as the referees may be expected to slightly favour New Zealand and Wales in terms of refereeing style, but all four teams will require discipline given the current tackling red card risk.
My head tells me that New Zealand versus South Africa is the most likely final, but that it could hardly be said to be a certainty or even a probability.