Ahead of this weekends semi-finals, eyes have, quite naturally, been drawn mainly to England against the All Blacks on Saturday morning. These are the world’s two best sides, the two form teams of the competition, both of whom dismissed their quarter-final opponents with consummate (and ominous) ease. It is the red rose versus the All Blacks, the immovable object meets the irresistible force. It is shrouded in history and drama – think 1995, think 2012.
And yet, flying under the radar slightly, is another semi-final, Wales versus South Africa. Neither have necessarily fulfilled expectations thus far (I expected the Springboks to beat the All Blacks in their opening fixture, and Wales’ wins have been less than convincing), but they are here, they are competitive, well matched sides, and they are likely to produce an unbelievably tense encounter.
Remarkably, Wales have beaten South Africa all four times they have played them since the 2015 RWC, the tournament in which a late Fourie du Preez score sent Wales crashing out in the quarters. This time, they meet a stage further on, and they meet as equals.
South Africa were favourites four years ago, since then Wales have dominated, when they meet on the pitch on Sunday, there will be respect and admiration between the two sets of players. Unfortunately, both sides will be missing key men – Cheslin Kolbe and Liam Williams respectively.
The absence of these two attacking stars, the electric, punchy Kolbe and the fiery yet languid figure of Williams, is a shame for the spectacle more generally, and could lead to the pursual of a slightly more conservative game plan. If that is the case, much will rest on Dan Biggar’s ability to match the unflappable Pollard, and the battle of the backrows.
For Wales, they are unlikely to get a much better chance to reach a World Cup final than this. Most agree that this current cohort is their best of the modern era. They have an incredible knack of winning games ugly, and the return to form and fitness of Johnathan Davies, a criminally underrated player, will be a massive boost.
Speaking to the press this week, Gatland said, “Jonathan has come through this week after ruling himself out against France and we are really excited where we are at the moment.”
He went on to admit, “it is not going to be the prettiest game in the world and will probably be a kicking-fest. They kicked a lot in the last round against Japan, but this chance does not come around very often and when you want it enough you can make it happen.”
He is right to embrace the potential ugliness of this encounter, which, with the rain and the two sides involved, could end up being one for the purists. But what that means, however, is tension and drama and physicality and pressure and the game swinging on the most minute hinge moments.
I, for one, cannot wait.
Written by Joe Ronan