Rugby World Cup: Semi-finals weekend preview

Rugby World Cup: Semi-finals weekend preview
© PA Photos
A look ahead at the Rugby World Cup semi-finals weekend as Wales take on France and Australia face New Zealand.

As millions of fans prepare for a weekend of the best rugby in the world, four men – three New Zealanders and one Frenchman – are fine-tuning their squads and feeling the burden of whole nations on their shoulders.

Last weekend saw Wales dominate Ireland, France embarrass England, New Zealand cruise past Argentina and Australia stop South Africa in their tracks. As game-plans are laid out, strategies formulated and defences tightened, everyone expects nothing less than thrilling displays from four teams battling for a spot in the World Cup final.

Interestingly, the four teams in this year's semi-finals featured in the same round of the inaugural tournament in 1987. In that round, France overpowered Australia, and New Zealand humiliated Wales to go on to win the tournament.

Twenty-four years later, how are the teams shaping up?

Wales

Few would have predicted before the World Cup that Wales would be the only home nations team left come the semi-finals, but Warren Gatland's decision to pick exuberant youth over battle-hardened experience has paid off and Wales find themselves hailed as the form team of the tournament.

Led by captain Sam Warburton, the Welsh squad have remained calm and collected, silently building momentum and dispatching their opposition with relative ease. Their only loss of the Pool stage came against South Africa, to whom they lost by just one point, and since then Gatland's men have clinically advanced past tough opposition including Samoa, Fiji and Ireland to book their first semi-final since 1987.

The only disturbance in Wales's winning pattern comes in the form of an injury to fly-half Rhys Priestland, who sits out the clash with France to the benefit of James Hook. Despite Hook having only featured at fullback so far this tournament, his excellent boot and natural playmaking abilities should smooth over any potential upset caused by the loss of Priestland.

France

France came out of nowhere last weekend to beat England after losses to New Zealand and Tonga in the Pool stages. Despite facing intense criticism from the French press, coach Marc Lievremont has that distinct 'I told you so' air about him going in to the semi-finals.

In equal parts criticised and lambasted for his odd selection choices, Lievremont is now leading his French team with nothing to lose – it has already been announced that he will be replaced as French coach after the tournament – and this is reflected in France's sudden flair with the ball.

France remain unchanged to face Wales – with scrum-half Morgan Parra still taking over the fly-half role – and though some commentators may feel that France's time in this tournament is up, Les Bleus can beat anyone on their day.

Australia

The Wallabies put up a stunning defensive display against South Africa last weekend, but will have to do much more if they are to beat New Zealand at Eden Park – a feat that they haven't achieved for 25 years.

Australia have not had a great tournament this year. They lost to Ireland in the Pool stages and their quarter-final attacking display against the Springboks was lacklustre to say the least. Fly-half Quade Cooper has not lived up to his abilities and flanker David Pocock was recently labelled a cheat.

That all being said, the Wallabies remain one of the best teams in the world, and despite being underdogs going into this semi-final, it should not be forgotten that they overcame the All Blacks in Brisbane to take their fist Tri-Nations title in a decade just one month before the World Cup.

New Zealand

Tournament favourites New Zealand have so far achieved an unbeaten record, but their injury list is becoming a major concern for coach Graham Henry. Dan Carter was ruled out of the rest of the Cup with a groin injury, followed shortly after by his replacement Colin Slade. The All Blacks' playmaking duties at 10 now go to third-choice Aaron Cruden. Captain Richie McCaw has been cleared to play, despite struggling with a foot injury, but New Zealand's quality right through the squad means that the team's success does not lie with one man.

A loss for the All Blacks would be a major upset, not only for the bookies but also for the whole of New Zealand. The consequences for the team and its coaches would be harsh – but that's the trouble with being hyped as favourites long before the tournament has even begun.

New Zealand are hungry for the Webb Ellis trophy, which they have not lifted since the first tournament in 1987. If they can transform that hunger and the weight of a whole nation into a winning mentality, then they should have enough to book their place in the final.

Sports Mole's Prediction: Wales and New Zealand to win


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