Loose Pass: No classic semi-final weekend at the Rugby World Cup

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass photo 24 October 2023.jpg

New Zealand and South Africa players celebrate after their respective Rugby World Cup semi-final wins over Argentina and England.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the story of the Rugby World Cup semi-final weekend…

French fans an unforgiving bunch

We asked how the French would react. By Saturday night we had our answers. No, the locals were not ready to add their particular brand of spectator spice to proceedings and no, they have not yet forgiven Ben O’Keeffe.

Referees had long been becoming a recurring theme since the very first weekend of the tournament, but back then (remember that heatwave in September?) it was more about the lack of consistency in head contact interpretations. This weekend it was just bleating, verging on the personal.

The gulf in class between Argentina and New Zealand was every bit as wide as the slice of the Pacific that divides the two geographically. It would not have made a difference had Diego Maradona himself refereed the game; even he would have eventually been spellbound by the skill levels the All Blacks showed. Complaining about the referee in that context just seems such a futile exercise.

Meanwhile, the negative reception afforded to Mr O’Keeffe as he was presented on screen before the second semi-final was a rare stain on the tournament from the locals. There might have been grounds for discontent with one or two decisions in the quarter-final; yet French fans bemoaning the display – and in many cases, the integrity – of the man in the middle would do well to watch the number of times French runners got away with being isolated in those frenzied final 10 minutes, as South Africa’s defence pulled the strangling cord tighter.

Fortunately, both semi-finals produced swathes of new talking points well-removed from the men in the middle. The manner of New Zealand’s cruise, the extra day of rest and the luxury they afforded themselves of an extra seven minutes of training for being a man down at match intensity, were all items that would normally render them favourites now.

Players all over the team are coming into peak form at the right time. Sam Cane is finally becoming the menace around the fringes he was when first slated to be successor to Richie McCaw. Richie Mo’unga is in imperious form at 10. Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are having renaissances. In Will Jordan, the All Blacks have unearthed a player who holds enough promise to become an all-time great. Aaron Smith is back in his prime. Mark Telea made a statement return from a disciplinary exclusion. There’s enough experience through the squad that being here in the final will faze nobody.

But the locals are not on the bus. The most marked feature of the first semi-final, aside from the dominance of the men in black, was the silence. It didn’t help that there was palpably only one team in it, but the atmosphere was comfortably the most lukewarm it has been the entire tournament. Having pooped Ireland’s party, New Zealand discovered that now there simply is no party, no matter how much razzle-dazzle they provide on the pitch. A great display, but hardly an occasion for the ages.

Favourites for the title? Well, that might not yet be an All Black achievement. They must now beat down a team that has always been a nemesis but has recently also taken that role to a highly personal level. Yet it will be a team feeling far more after-effects from its knockout journey.

Experienced Bok trio overcooked

A lot has been written about the way South Africa’s bench won the tightest of contests over England, a bit less about who was taken off. Manie Libbok and Cobus Reinach both paid the price for ineffectiveness, but the departures of Siya Kolisi. Duane Vermeulen and Eben Etzebeth were down to the trio being plain cooked. Done. Out of fumes. If the final is to be decided on freshness, New Zealand has the upper hand.

England may also have sensed it even before the game. England’s rugby has not been pretty in this tournament, while the side has been snarly enough to its detractors throughout that even the RFU is concerned that the projected siege identity is not quite the right fit; rich, considering how thoroughly the top brass has closed ranks since the onset of the crisis engulfing the club game there. Yet the team did make a semi-final so, you know, there’s that.

But this, this was next level ugly. England kicked 93 per cent of their possession. Scrums took three minutes. One newspaper columnist wondered if it might be possible to win a game that had negative in-play time. Phalanxes of water-boys stormed the pitch at every opportunity to slow the game down. Forwards celebrated routine defensive sets as though they’d won the tournament. Every moment was a mental, in-your-face challenge to South Africa. Strategically it was shrewd, but it was dreadful PR for the game in England, at a time when good PR is desperately needed.

A special word for Joe Marler among all the ugliness. His was the right mixture of smile and snarl. It was Marler taking Manu Tuilagi to task for getting involved in some unnecessary push and shove early on. It was Marler who managed to both question Mr. O’Keeffe’s decision and raise a smile from the beleaguered official after the explanation. “Next time, then?” he asked with a smirk. “Yeah, next time,” chuckled the official. A rare moment of jollity among so much prevailing dudgeon. And it was at Marler’s exit when the tide seemed to turn against England at scrum-time.

But South Africa found a way. They so often do. The brickbats from parts of the English press utterly failed to acknowledge that this South Africa team is one of the most mentally resilient teams ever. England’s game was limited in ambition but flawlessly executed. Freddie Steward cut off South Africa’s aerial threat. Courtney Lawes and George Martin cut off the threat from the line-out. The mauls were negated. The scrums too. But when the changes were made, South Africa had more on the bench. They needed to find 10 points and they found them. And on they go.

It was no classic semi-final weekend. One one-sided exhibition, one game of purist physical grunt. The local fans were disengaged. Ball-in-play time was well down – Welsh fans should note with pride that all four of their pool matches featured in the top 10 ball-in-play times for the tournament.

But the final is set up to be a classic. A clash of styles, a clash of old foes, a team motivated by revenge for a recent humiliation against a team that always seems to have more to fight for. The former undisputed number one in the world against the team that has ultimately usurped them. A rematch of 1995. A clash between the winners of the last three World Cups. A clash between two vastly experienced squads, with the world’s most experienced referee taking charge. It might not be the final we all wanted at the start, but it could yet end up being the final for the ages this tournament deserves.

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