Australia’s desperate two—point win over defending champion South Africa and the All Blacks’ grinding 33—10 win over Argentina on Sunday completed a World Cup semifinal lineup with a familiar feel for New Zealanders.
Archrivals New Zealand and Australia will meet in a blockbuster semifinal next Sunday, a day after France and Wales fight for the other spot in the final. The same four teams featured in the semifinals at the inaugural World Cup in 1987, the last time the tournament was staged in New Zealand.
The All Blacks beat Wales in the 1987 semifinals and then had too much firepower in the final for France, which was coming off a comeback semifinal win over the Australians.
New Zealand hasn’t won another title since then, while the Wallabies triumphed in 1991 and ‘99 and after the 11—9 win over South Africa in Wellington are in the hunt to become the first team to win three World Cups.
France has lost both times it reached the final to New Zealand in ‘87 and Australia in ‘99 while Wales is back in the semifinals for the first time in 24 years.
The Welsh haven’t lost since their opening pool win over South Africa and have grown in confidence along the way, culminating with a 22—10 win over Ireland in the first of four weekend quarterfinals. The French lost to New Zealand and went down in a shocking upset to Tonga and only narrowly qualified for the knockout stage, but rallied for a spirited victory over 2003 champion England on Saturday night.
The rain and wind that buffeted Wellington for a week finally lifted on Sunday, giving the Australian backs a chance to shine against the most experienced Springboks test lineup ever fielded. But it was the defense which won the day for the Wallabies, who made three times as many tackles as their opponents and spent most of the match in their own half of the field.
“Not everything went our way tonight but one thing you can’t train and you can’t teach is effort and commitment from the group,” Wallabies captain James Horwill said. “In games like that you have to find a way to win and that’s what we did.
“It took a lot of guts to get the result.”
The Wallabies haven’t won at Eden Park since 1986, and haven’t beaten the All Blacks anywhere in New Zealand since 2001.
But two things are in their favor they beat the All Blacks in the Tri—Nations decider in Brisbane this season to claim the southern hemisphere’s biggest prize for the first time in a decade.
And in World Cup semifinals head—to—heads, it’s- Australia 2, New Zealand 0.
Also of concern for the New Zealanders was an increasing injury toll, particularly since Daniel Carter was already sidelined from the tournament with an injured groin.
Maintaining their unbeaten record against the Pumas may have come at a cost with 100—test fullback Mils Muliaina only lasting 41 minutes before he was replaced with a serious shoulder injury and new flyhalf Colin Slade replaced after picking up a groin injury.
Carter’s tournament ended last week with a torn tendon in his groin in training, elevating Slade to the starting flyhalf.
In for Slade went Aaron Cruden, the squad replacement for Carter, and after his first All Blacks appearance in a year he was praised by coach Graham Henry for his composure.
Skipper Richie McCaw didn’t seem to be slowed down by his injured foot as much as the slow ball.
“I’ve twice played Argentina and never had an easy game,” McCaw said. “They’re passionate, and when it comes to a World Cup quarterfinal, they showed how much it means to them, and we expected that.
“They play well as a team, try to interrupt your flow and put you under pressure. We knew it might take a bit of time to get on top. The thing we didn’t want to do was panic. We’ve learned from the past that you’ve got to play 80 minutes in these big tests, there’s always going to be opportunities and you’ve got to take them.”
It was a vast improvement for the All Blacks, who were shockingly eliminated by France in the quarterfinals last time.
South Africa was the main beneficiary of that in 2007, not having to face one of the Tri—Nations teams in the knockout rounds, but it’s 11—match World Cup winning streak is over. And many of the core group of the last two World Cup campaigns have probably played their last tests.
Peter de Villiers said after the match that his Springboks coaching career is over and described the mood in the dressing room of the deposed world champions as “three notches lower than a funeral.”
“The guys are quiet,” he said. “There’s not a very good mood in there.”
The Australians led 8—0 after a try to captain James Horwill against the run of play and a penalty goal to James O’Connor. The Springboks rallied with two penalties and a dropped goal from Morne Steyn to take a 9—8 lead with a quarter to play and, with a glut of possession, the momentum. But the Australians held firm and eventually took advantage of their only second—half scoring chance, with O’Connor knocking over the winning penalty goal nine minutes from fulltime.
“It’s sad. You’re never prepared for when it ends,” Springboks captain John Smit said. “You want it to be in a final, with a win. But I’d be silly to take my seven years (as captain) and judge it on what happened today.”
Australia coach Robbie Deans would have cause for concern over how flyhalf Quade Cooper played, but flanker David Pocock was inspirational in attack and defense.
“What you saw was the most experienced side in the world really turn the screws on the youngsters,” Deans said. “The boys came of age in the way they took on that challenge and stood up to that.”
Keywords: Rugby World Cup