Losing is what players and managers dread at the semi-final stage of the Rugby World Cup. Not because of the dejection, humiliation and the return flight home which it brings, although that will be there in abundance for the losers. No, what awaits the vanquished after the weekend is what players and coaches regard as a fate worse than going home - the play-off for third place. That is something no one wants.
Two teams are guaranteed a match too far on Thursday. That is what makes rugby, in this knockout context, a test of character for the team as a whole and for its individual players. The semi-final asks a big question of all of them: Can you deliver your talent under the pressure of this occasion, an occasion which is inevitably overshadowed by the prospect of letting down yourself, your team and your country?
It may just be the pressure and the weight of expectation generally during the World Cup that is causing England to perform below expectation, but they are certainly not reproducing the form which made them No 1 in the world. Symptoms of the malaise are the unusually high rate of turnovers than had previously been the norm; the high number of penalties conceded; and, disturbingly, the manner in which their supposedly infallible defence has yielded tries against Samoa, Wales and Uruguay. Despite ample possession, tries scored by England are in too short supply as well, even when they have established their trademark attacking rhythms, as they did against Wales. Form is not matching expectations based on previous performance, and this has all added to the pressure.
However, even a below-par England are still winning. This is based on sheer dogged determination and, most of all, the goal kicking phenomenon that is Jonny Wilkinson. How the burden has rested on his shoulders, but he has delivered and has been the difference. It was his kicking which overturned an adverse try count of three to one to Wales last weekend. Very pointedly, after the critical win over South Africa in the pool match, François Pienaar said the result would have been reversed had Wilkinson been playing for the Springboks.
We should not forget that opposing teams take the field with the perfectly acceptable object of stopping his play-making, and that a legitimate heavy tackle or two could help to this end. Wilkinson is a well-marked man and he knows it. The play-making responsibility therefore needs to be shared, and had been by Will Greenwood, but recently his role has been obscured in a seemingly overpopulated midfield. Here play-makers can be relegated to minor roles as others move into the key first and second receiver positions, perhaps in pursuit of their concept of total rugby; as noted previously, this confusion does not happen in rugby league which has been employing this style a little longer.
Mike Catt's introduction after half time against Wales seemed to prove the point. His handling and kicking skills brought authority and clear direction to England's game as he worked in tandem with a consequently more relaxed Wilkinson. For these reasons, Catt's selection for tomorrow's semi-final became a must, though he has been short of playing time recently. It is hard on Mike Tindall, whose strong running has been a feature of England's progress in recent seasons.
Another key selection is the return of Richard Hill to the back row. This unit has been hard-working, and Lawrence Dallaglio did gain more yards than for some time against Wales as England dominated the contact. However, the collective drive has been missing and Hill's return should help resurrect what has been a successful trio with Dallaglio and Neil Back. When necessary, the pace of Lewis Moody can be accessed from the bench.
These team changes, together with the return of Josh Lewsey at full back, with Jason Robinson moving to the wing, give England a much better tactical balance. Additionally, they should help galvanise the team psychologically.
If England have been rather downbeat about their progress, the French performances through the pool stages underpinned their tradition of doing well at Rugby World Cups. The bigger challenge expected from Ireland in the quarter-final never materialised. Against the Irish the French looked the complete team. Their powerful forwards combined with fast backs and they were well directed by Fabien Galthié and Frédéric Michalak at half back.
The stereotype of French rugby persists as being a mixture of flair and fire, with the flawed and the foul. This may well have been the case previously, but coach Bernard Laporte has worked hard to channel the Latin temperament into a positive thrust, which, importantly, underpins the undoubted skill and organisation inherent in the side. Their current good performance was not seen in the last Six Nations, but, before heading out to Australia for this tournament they sought to adopt a commando approach and trained in the French mountains. Apart from losing, through injury, their best tight head prop, Pieter de Villiers, when he fell off his mountain bike, this approach has worked and the French appear to have found a Rugby World Cup focus.
Whatever their perceived lack of fluency to date, England certainly have the talent and France will be well aware that they are due a good game. Tactically the French will be seeking to put pressure on England's half-backs, Matt Dawson and Wilkinson, by disrupting England possession at source, at the lineouts and with powerful scrummaging led by Jean-Jacques Crenca their outstanding loosehead prop. Refereeing of these areas will therefore be crucial.
France will look to attack through their back row of Imanol Harinordoquy, Olivier Magne and Serge Betsen then launch their backs through the space created; to this end their halfback play will be critical. Here the vastly experienced captain Galthié will need to guide his very youthful partner Michalak through a demanding test. Success or otherwise in this aspect for the 20 year old Michalak will be key to France's fortunes as he is also their goal kicker. He has been very impressive to date, a find of the tournament, and his contest with JW could well decide the outcome.
On World Cup form to date France are a clear threat, but do they have the physical and mental stamina to last such a match? Due a big game or not, England have these necessary attributes and have proved they can win even when not playing to their undoubted potential.
The other semi-final looks more straightforward, with a misfiring Australia striving for more power and rhythm, while their Trans-Tasman rivals, New Zealand, have been ever-improving as the tournament has progressed. This is effectively a game of Super 12-based teams and doubts about both packs of forwards should be cancelled out, at least in the set pieces.
There will be an interesting battle of the back rows, however. Here Australia have selected two very able open-sides, George Smith and Phil Waugh, at wing forward; this may sacrifice power, but they will challenge strongly in the loose. It is here that the All Blacks seek to win quick ball and launch their exciting back play. In the threequarters, too, there are interesting battles in prospect with the Australian power wingers Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor matched against the streamlined pace of Joe Rokococo and Doug Howlett, a supply of good ball permitting.
And who are the best orchestrators of play at half-back, Gregan and Stephen Larkham or Justin Marshall and Carlos Spencer? Gregan has come to rugby life again and is a driving force, while Spencer is back to his magical best, his game now laced with pragmatism.
The Australian coach, Eddie Jones, says the game is simply about what happens on the day. That is true. And the fierce rivalry between these two countries, Australia being the home side as well as the World Cup holders, will also come into play. But going into the semi finals there must be factors of greater substance as well. And here New Zealand have a clear edge. Firstly, they beat Australia twice in winning the recent Tri-Nations competition. Secondly, they have been consistent in selection and sound in their tactics.
New Zealand, however, have still to throw off the cloud of underachieving in previous tournaments. There is the impression that not even the parting of the Tasman Sea will allow them a safe return home should they fall short in this game.
Jack Rowell, Bath's director of rugby, coached England from 1995 to 1997Reuse content