By William Hill
Last Updated: 6th November 2019
Just four teams remain in the 2019 Rugby World Cup and on paper, both semi-finals have all the credentials to be absolute blockbusters. The first sees tournament favourites New Zealand take on England in Yokohama in a mouth-watering clash on Saturday morning. Here is our preview of the opening Rugby World Cup semi-final.
All Blacks a very tough nut to crack
New Zealand appear to be coming into form at just the right time. Having relinquished the Rugby Championship this year for the first time since 2015 and for only the fourth time since 2005, many thought this was a side in transition. However, like so many great sporting sides, they seem to save it for the big occasions and the fact they haven’t lost a World Cup match since October 6, 2007 typifies that notion.
They kicked off this year’s campaign in Japan with a hard-fought victory over South Africa, before steamrolling tournament minnows Canada and Namibia without breaking sweat. They weren’t able to take on Italy due to the weather, but it was their quarter-final performance against Ireland which really caught the eye.
Having lost two of the last three against the Irish, there were plenty who thought Steve Hansen’s side would come a cropper again, but in truth they simply outclassed their opponents in a 46-14 drubbing. Hansen’s decision to play Richie Mo’unga at fly-half with Beauden Barrett at full-back had a few people scratching their heads in the build-up to the tournament, but it’s proved an inspired selection with both having the ability to unlock an opposition defence.
The All Blacks have made a surprise change to their side for this one with Scott Barrett starting in the No. 6 jersey. The 25-year-old, a lock by trade, will start his first Test in the back row as Hansen seeks to beef up his set-piece options. Barrett’s addition does mean a slight loss of mobility in the Kiwi line-up, though by dominating the set-piece it should mean they will apply more pressure to England’s kicking game, an area which the Red Rose have excelled in so far. New Zealand are the 2/5 favourites as they hunt a third consecutive world title, while the handicap sits at seven points.
Red Rose could be ready to bloom again
When Eddie Jones was appointed England coach in 2015, he was given one major aim – to win the World Cup. Over the past four years, Jones has shaped a side capable of mixing it with the game’s best as they seek a first World Cup crown since Jonny Wilkinson’s heroics in 2003. There have been speedbumps along the way, but two Six Nations championships as well as an away series whitewash in Australia shows he’s moved this side forward massively and they are definitely not without a chance here. Jones’ side are the 23/10 outsiders for Saturday’s encounter.
Jones has recalled George Ford at fly-half, with captain Owen Farrell shifting to inside centre. Ford’s recall means England match their opponents with two players who can operate as a double-pivot, maximising their options in attack, while it also allows Manu Tuilagi to switch back to his preferred position of outside centre. England’s inclusion of both Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph on the bench indicates Jones expects this match to be won and lost in the midfield, so you can expect both to be given plenty of game time.
Hard to look past New Zealand
Given the side Steven Hansen has selected, it’s clear he thinks a large part of this game will be dictated by the set-piece. They’ve effectively selected three locks as they seek to dominate the line-out and given England’s strong kicking game, it looks a shrewd move. You feel if England are going to win this they need to start well as there aren’t many teams better at controlling a game than the All Blacks. However, at points during that Ireland victory, New Zealand were frighteningly good and they look good value to cover the handicap at even-money.