The seventh installment of the quadrennial Rugby World Cup has winnowed its way from twenty teams down to the final four. There is little surprise in the composition of the remaining field, with all four teams ranked among the top five in the International Rugby Board’s world rankings. (South Africa, #3 in the rankings, was knocked out by #2 Australia in the quarterfinals in a tight 11-9 finish.)
Just one of the four teams having yet to appear in a World Cup championship match. One half of the bracket is heavily weighted with the top two teams in the world, two local dynamos of the region that have combined to take three of the six previous Webb Ellis Cups presented to the world champion. The other semifinal pits the #4 team in the world against #5, one of which has lost in two previous finals and the other a former semifinalist. No matter who advances, there will certainly still be a Cinderella story to follow in the finals (for those who enjoy such things).
This weekend, Eden Park in Auckland is the center of the rugby world as the venerable 111-year-old stadium hosts both matches on Saturday and Sunday. Which teams are likely to return to the stadium to contest the championship the following Sunday?
SATURDAY: #4 Wales v. #5 France
WALES’ CASE: Of the remaining teams in the World Cup, none have played better defense than the Welshmen. Allowing just 44 points over their five matches so far in the tournament, Wales is the only team that has held opponents under ten points a contest. And aside from the hosts of the tournament, no other team has scored more points in arriving to this point. (Of course, 145 of their 202 total points scored came in a couple of routs, 81-7 to Namibia and 66-0 to Fiji.) No team has managed to score more than 17 points against them in any one match (their opening 17-16 defeat to South Africa). No one particular player has been doing the bulk of the scoring for them, either… ten of the top thirty scorers remaining in the tournament are Welsh. At this stage only New Zealand is playing as cohesively as Wales, and their combination of offense and defense have them surging up the world rankings and in the semifinals for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1987.
FRANCE’S CASE: France is the only team to have two players who have scored 30 or more points so far in the tournament. Dimitri Yachvili has been kicking superbly for Les Bleus, with 6 conversions and 9 penalties. No player in the tournament has more tries than Vincent Clerc’s six. The problem for France is that behind them the scoring is perilously thin. Only Argentina had fewer points among teams advancing out of the group stage to the quarterfinals. Worse, though, is the defense. In their four games in Group A, the French gave up 21 to Japan and 19 to Canada in their two victories. They allowed 37 against New Zealand and 19 to Tonga in defeats. Only point differential and total tries allowed them to squeak past the latter into the quarters to begin with. While France has more experience at this stage, having been to two finals and at least in the semifinals every edition of the World Cup save 1991, this might be too much for Yachvili and Clerc to shoulder.
PICK: Wales by 18
SUNDAY: #2 Australia v. #1 New Zealand
AUSTRALIA’S CASE: Australia has allowed two fewer points to their opponents in getting to this point of the tournament than their opponents in this second semifinal. James O’Connor leads all remaining players in scoring, currently fourth behind three guys sitting on the sidelines watching the proceedings this weekend like the rest of us. Adam Ashley-Cooper’s five tries rank just behind Clerc in that category. And the Wallabies are one of just two two-time champions, having won most recently in Wales in 1999. Yet it feels like they are already predestined to drop this match. Behind O’Connor and Ashley-Cooper they lack scoring depth, just like France. When they were confronted by a tough defense in Ireland, they folded. They scored just 11 on South Africa, the defense carrying them to the semifinals.
NEW ZEALAND’S CASE: Against the All-Blacks, you cannot depend on defense carrying you to the finals. Colin Slade and Piri Weepu have been nearly as formidable a kicking-and-try tandem as France’s pair. The difference is depth… no other team in the tournament has more when it comes to scoring in bunches. And defensively, while the Kiwis haven’t been the best defensively, they score far more than enough to mask any deficiencies. The home crowd will be raucous in Eden Park cheering on their side, and not even their greatest rivals should stand in the way of another trip to the finals on home soil.
PICK: New Zealand by 15