England and NZ search for perfection



The first semifinal this weekend will have a go at answering the sports version of that old philosophical nugget: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

New Zealand and England were devastating in their respective quarterfinals. Each displayed a ruthless grip and began to methodically impose their game plan over 80 minutes. Australia and Ireland could find no answer. They simply could not stop the conviction of 15 men committed to their game plan, who formed a side unwilling to compromise.

For the All Blacks, that meant punishing even the most minute of openings. You sensed it at every needless turnover and errant kick, the inevitability of what was to come. It was hard not to become giddy watching those precise off-loads; equally hard not to scratch your head about how they’re telepathically released for maximum effect.

It was revealing to see just how remorseful Ireland coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best were about giving their opponents so much as a thread to pull. As soon as they did, “we were chasing our own tails”, the former said after the game.

“I don’t really have an excuse or a reason for it,” he solemnly continued. “You can’t afford to give the All Blacks access points like we did. They’re good enough to win games without us inviting them in. It was incredibly disappointing. You have to make the All Blacks work for everything if they’re going to get it.”

The Irish leaders knew going into the kick-off that the only way to stop a runaway train is to catch it before it gathers momentum. After failing that crucial step there could be only one outcome.

Now, heading into the semifinals, the lessons for the Kiwis’ opponents are clear. When the impetus is handed to them, Sevu Reece and George Bridge are capable of stretching any defensive structure to breaking point. The tenacious ball-carrying of Ardie Savea is unmatched. Richie Mo’unga conducts a superb orchestra. None of Beauden Barrett’s tricky essence is lost at No 15. Sniper Aaron Smith hasn’t got the message that he’s supposedly not the best scrum-half in the world anymore.

New Zealand’s fluidity calls for unyielding blockage. England might yet be able to erect such a structure.

Despite their soft underbelly, Australia strung together a few captivating phases early on last Saturday. It was their opponents who made sure their ingenuity amounted to naught and that their mistakes multiplied.

Full credit goes to the English pack for forcing 18 turnovers and basically extorting two intercept tries with relentless pressure.

The Roses are mean and tireless and if there is a side that could stifle the world champions, it looks to be this one. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill have an insatiable appetite for the tackle — not to mention an uncanny knack for arriving at the breakdown as fast as any flanker in world rugby.

Consider the velocity of Maro Itoje and England have the type of aggressive youth that are willing to connect the kind of hard-hitting blows that can put an entire team on the back foot.

You would also be hard-pressed to find scarier-looking props than when Kyle Sinckler — the man England coach Eddie Jones describes as a “runaway rhino” — and Billy Vunipola are fired up.

You get the sense that this English side will relish the opportunity to prove their cruelty in defence against the world’s best. At the very least, they will not be cowed.

“The best samurais were always the guys who had a plan they could adapt,” Jones said after the quarterfinal. “They had calm heads but were full of aggression. I thought we were like that today but there’s always a better samurai around the corner.”

Arguably, we could be looking at the two greatest warriors in the World Cup, each armed with their own weapons. Whose steel holds firm, might just give us a hint as to who will ascend the throne on November 2.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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