Australia are potentially the second best team in the Rugby World Cup but they have had most fortune of the four teams left in the competition. However, New Zealand were awesome against France and look set to play their great rivals in the final. South Africa and Argentina will have their say in the two semi-final matches that don’t figure one team from the northern hemisphere.
The handicap markets earlier this week made Australia and New Zealand favourites in their fixtures with Argentina and South Africa. The Wallabies have to give up a six point start while the All Blacks are being asked to win by more than eight points to cover the spread. The recommendation is to follow Argentina and New Zealand in the handicap markets for this weekend’s semi-final matches.
Arguably the most contentious decision in the history of the tournament cost Scotland a place in the last four. The Scots were leading Australia by two points up until the 79th minute when the referee awarded Australia a penalty that was converted. Television replays indicated that Scottish prop Jon Welsh was not offside and awarding a penalty was the wrong decision. The mood of Scottish players and fans was worsened when the referee sprinted from the field at the end of the match.
Consequently there is no northern hemisphere team in the last four for the first time in World Cup history. The combined score in the four quarter-finals was 163 points to the southern hemisphere teams and 86 points to the northern hemisphere teams. That statistic means a country will be world champions for the fourth time in eight tournaments away from their half of the world.
Argentina are the only side left in the competition who are not former winners. England will remain the only winners from the northern hemisphere and the number of wins by the hosts will remain at three. England were the only side from the Six Nations who did not progress from the group stage. France have never won the World Cup and will not add to their tally of three appearances in the final.
Sir Clive Woodward coached the England side that won the World Cup in 2003 so his opinions should be respected. He recognises some extenuating circumstances but points out that the top European sides were beaten when it mattered most. He believes it would ne a mistake to view this as a blip because the teams from the rest of the world are going to get better. A strong Six Nations is irrelevant in the context of the global game.
Woodward advocates focusing on skills and fitness and not just power. He suggests a system of relegation in the Six Nations would make European rugby less of a closed shop and give countries like Georgia and Romania a chance to break into the continent’s elite. The role of sevens rugby could be increased by taking the philosophy from the shortened form of the game into the 15 player format.
New Zealand have shown that the World Cup will not be won with a big, slow back row and a midfield three chosen for their defensive attributes. In the last quarter against France New Zealand played wonderful rugby from all sections of the side. That win was the best piece of form in the tournament to date but Australia have also played some great rugby and a final between the sides would be difficult to call.
Argentina played almost the perfect match against Ireland in the quarter-finals. They now take part in the Rugby Championship which brings them up against the three southern hemisphere superpowers. They are battle hardened at the highest level while the British sides are flattered by results in the autumn internationals. Australia will be too strong for Argentina but they have had their best tournament ever this time.
South Africa beat Wales thanks to piece of magic play and the subsequent late match deciding try. They have got their tournament back on track after recovering from the shock of losing to Japan in their first pool match. They could only just beat an injury decimated Wales so restricting New Zealand to a win by less than 8 points looks beyond them. Domestic rugby works for the benefit of the national side but finishing third looks the most likely outcome for South Africa.
New Zealand and Australia have never contested a World Cup final. Both should win their semi-finals though only the All Blacks may cover the handicap. However, starts are only significant for betting purposes and the winners of each match is all that matters and they should be New Zealand and Australia.