As an Englishman who played in a winning Rugby World Cup Semi-Final (1991 v Scotland ), the overall feeling then was relief and then excitement. Twickenham awaited us after beating the Auld Enemy to avenge the 1990 defeat. In Yokohama, you can add supreme satisfaction I would imagine although this England squad will try to remove it from their consciousness. How could such a consummate performance have occurred, when in general no one cares about the style in a semi-final, just win it. Look at Sunday’s kick fest for example.
Firstly, I think that England looked at the All Blacks team sheet and asked themselves how many would get into the England team – actually very few, and after the match possibly none. That builds confidence.
Remember also that the All Blacks have been tampering with their team constantly and the backline they selected was in reality full of journeymen with no Ben Smith, Ioane and a positional change for Barrett, not to mention MacKenzie’s long term injury. More licking of English lips. Up front a returning Retallick, an aging Whitelock and Read plus a back row gamble which spectacularly backfired. 19 turnovers! Did I see George Ford strip the ball singlehandedly from an All Black prop?
England knew the match was there for the taking and that if they could control the ball then their occasionally seen multiphase attack would be very effective and so it proved. Considering two disallowed tries, the All Black scramble defence prevented a 40 plus point pummelling, incredibly. This in a Rugby World Cup Semi Final against the reigning Champions and with all that history. It was history of its own being made and in my opinion goes down as one of the best games of rugby I have ever seen in that context. The disbelief mounted as the men in white achieved a near total shutout and it was stunning.
If they lose the Final, people will try to diminish this day and some already are, but believe me this will rank up there as one of the greats although there was no tension regarding the result because an England win was assured well before the end despite the apparent scoreline.
For the All Blacks they will be back – of course- although it may take some time to recover as did the 2007 reverse in Cardiff against France. I also sense a longer term shift in fortunes. This England team will be even better in four years’ time I suggest, and France will surely be bringing through their youthful talent.
I so felt for Wales. In the end this is a proud country with so much performance history behind it and to have emerged with such honour in defeat will be no consolation. They had a very tough route through to the semi-finals and in the end the mounting toll of injuries to a number of their best players simply reflected their commitment to the cause. Given their player base they probably possess the highest percentage of top players in World Rugby. In the end, their kicking strategy was a tactic to ensure a close match and to perhaps nick it at the end. I would have loved to see them in full flow but with four world class backs either injured or struggling with their fitness it was always going to be tough. The lack of Liam Williams could have been the difference.
Those who read my blogs will know I tipped SA well before the World Cup and for all the reasons I did, here they are in the Final. Content to go with the limited game plan of the Welsh they also risked an unsatisfactory defeat. But for the final they present more risk to a rampant England. Clear underdogs for sure as this Springbok team has only just come together but they are already hard-bitten and will imagine themselves good enough to win.
More thoughts before the weekend…