Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Thorny English rose aims to prick All Blacks pride

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Rarely has a Rugby World Cup match promised such excitement as Saturday’s eagerly anticipated semi-final in which the English rose will seek to wound All Blacks’ pride at Yokohama.

Both rivals were in devastating quarterfinals form last weekend with England’s confidence soaring upon overwhelming Australia 40-16 before the All Blacks blitzed Ireland 46-14.

Under coach Eddie Jones, England are no longer a boring one-dimensional team who rely on forward power to allow their halves to play a kicking territorial game,

Their tight forwards are stronger than ever and loosies Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry have the speed, skill and strength to severely test the in-form Kieran Read, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea.

While kicking does play a huge part in the role of halves Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, captain Farrell is also capable of igniting his backline with sweetly timed passes to juggernaut second-five Manu Tuilagi who takes some stopping.

In Johnny May and Anthony Watson, they have two fast, try-scoring wings just as New Zealand does with unpredictable crackerjack Sevu Reece and George Bridge.

To summarise, the English rose has sharp thorns intent on wounding the All Blacks in much the same way as a Trojan arrow struck Greek hero Achilles’ heel.

They should not be under-estimated, especially if it turns out to be a tightly fought contest where Farrell’s superior goal-kicking boot could counter balance the All Blacks greater flair.

One of the greatest gifts of athletics guru Arthur Lydiard beyond instilling confidence in champion runners like Peter Snell and Murray Halberg, was his ability to peak them at the right time.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has the same knack, though he justifiably seeks to share the kudos with fellow coaches Ian Foster, Mike Cron and Scott McLeod.

Just as an injury-ridden Dan Carter peaked at the 2015 World Cup where he was named player of the tournament, so too has skipper Kieran Read after having undergone back surgery last year.

Joe Moody had his best game against Ireland and it was particularly pleasing to see Brodie Retallick, Jack Goodhue and replacement Sonny Bill Williams perform so well after long injury breaks.

Meanwhile sprightly halfback Aaron Smith had his best game of the year, scored the first two tries and combined sweetly with Richie Mo’unga who varied his play cleverly.

Brilliant Beauden Barrett won man of the match honours for the second time in this tournament and made 21 carries to pass the previous World Cup record of 20 shared by John Kirwan and Buck Shelford in 1987.

Especially pleasing was the binding and low body position of the lively forwards against a famed, experienced Irish pack who began to show their age.

Meanwhile having conquered brave Japan 26-3, South Africa should account for a Welsh team that scraped home 20-19 against 14-man France after lock Sébastien Vahaamahina was red-carded in the 49th minute for an elbow to Aaron Wainwright’s head.

But for Vahaamahina’s stupidity, unpredictable France would have won.

Predictably the Springboks had too much power for brave, adventuresome Japan who were eventually overcome in the second half.

That should give them confidence against Six Nations champions Wales on Sunday while All Blacks and Englishmen recover from wounds suffered in what should be a bruising Saturday clash.

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer



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