England would have been too focused on the business to be done against Wales this morning to have paid close attention to New Zealand's form against South Africa yesterday, but if they do need to study the video over the next day or so they will find that the Kiwis went up a couple more gears, as they have done each game.
What was most noticeable yesterday was that they took South Africa on up front. After the confrontational way the Springbok pack went at the English forwards it was expected that this was the department in which they would cause New Zealand most trouble. It didn't happen like that.
Since the World Cup started, people have wondered whether the New Zealand front five could match England if they were to meet in the final. Any doubts about that would have have sharply decreased. Apart from the magical Carlos Spencer, the Kiwi heroes were to be found in the pack - notably the hooker, Keven Mealamu, who scored a great try and was man of the match, and the lock Chris Jack, who was brought into the side by coach John Mitchell.
Jack had a very good game and added to the line-out threat of Ali Williams. It's not often that New Zealand's forwards can take the spotlight off their brilliant backs, but they managed it yesterday. The back row were excellent, with Richard McCaw looking good and the No 8, Jerry Collins, continuing to catch the eye. He tackles like a demon and carries the ball so well.
Once New Zealand saw that their opponents were spreading their defence and not committing many men to the rucks and mauls, they drove down the middle and caused havoc. With the forwards taking control it is a wonder they did not have the game wrapped up by the interval, but the Springboks played spiritedly enough to go in only seven points down. They needed to score first in the second half, though, but after an early surge by Jorrie Muller came to nothing they were never in it.
Their main problem was the lack of penetration from their backs, and much of this was due to the slowness of their half-backs, Joost van der Westhuizen and young Derick Hougaard, who kicked badly. It was sad that Joost should end his career as an international on a low note, but he's been a great player and will have far better memories as a consolation.
Once the Kiwis got comfortably in front, Spencer proceeded to cut South Africa to pieces. All these cheeky little flicked passes look flamboyant, but he knows exactly where the ball is going. His most spectacular effort was passing through his legs for Joe Rokocoko to score the final try. He wasn't being flashy; if he had tried to stand up with the ball he would have been flattened. It was probably the most accurate pass of the day, and Spencer is making an early claim to be man of the tournament.
If New Zealand have a slight worry it is goal-kicking, where Leon MacDonald needs more confidence, but they have so many other things going for them. I believe they need only 40 per cent possession to win any game.
Having said that, they need to be wary of Australia in the semi-final. The Aussies have the potential to win any game. They had to work hard yesterday, but you can put that down to an excellent performance by Scotland. It is amazing that Ireland, Wales and Scotland have had such similar experiences during the tournament. They each struggled to impose themselves in the pool stages, but when they qualified they suddenly cut loose and produced great performances.
In the first half yesterday, the Scots were superb. Their forwards were strong and aggressive in the set-pieces, they defended in a solid and organised way, and with Chris Paterson playing well at stand-off they mounted some promising attacks. But the lack of incisive finishing has been their undoing for a long time now. Even allowing for the amount of balls they spilled they still look light in the try department and, once more, it was left to the forwards to score the late try they richly deserved.
They had a right to complain about the number of occasions that the referee, Steve Walsh, ignored crossing by the Australian backs. But I am afraid you have to accept that southern- hemisphere referees tend to ignore things that would be jumped on immediately by refs back home. The Aussies struggled to assert themselves and took advantage of some slack tackling to get their try-scoring under way in the second half. Mat Rogers dropped the ball a couple of times but he makes a very dangerous back three with Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri, who looked menacing.
A lot of Australia's play is geared to letting this back three loose, and as long as they are around no opponent can feel completely safe.Reuse content