We look ahead to this 2023 Rugby World Cup semi-final with our England vs South Africa prediction and preview.
England and South Africa are no strangers to one another at the Rugby World Cup, having met five times previously (SA W4, L1) in the competition. The last two such clashes between them came in the 2007 and 2019 finals, with both ending in glory for South Africa.
Mark Cueto’s foot grazing the touchline in 2007 and Cheslin Kolbe causing havoc in Yokohama four years ago will still be fresh scars in England fans’ memories. There are also plenty of players on both sides who played in the big dance in 2019, 28 of the 46 in fact.
England’s only Rugby World Cup victory against South Africa came in their successful 2003 campaign, and that was the only time they’ve managed to score a try against them in the competition too.
That’s all in the past though and this clash feels totally different to any previous meeting.
Once again, South Africa are peaking at just the right time and come into this game after a scintillating victory over hosts France. England meanwhile have had a somewhat surprisingly trouble-free passage to the semi-final stage and are the only unbeaten side left in the competition.
There’s no doubt the Boks will be heavy favourites (82% on our win predictor), but that brings its own challenges. Go back four years and England pulled out one of their greatest ever performances to beat the All Blacks at this stage.
Knockout rugby is just that: who will be able to land the heavier blows in this bout?
Route to the Knockouts
- Won 27-10 vs Argentina
- Won 34-12 vs Japan
- Won 71-0 vs Chile
- Won 18-17 vs Samoa
- Won 30-24 vs Fiji
- Won 18-3 vs Scotland
- Won 76-0 vs Romania
- Lost 8-13 vs Ireland
- Won 49-18 vs Tonga
- Won 29-28 vs France
South Africa have been ruthlessly efficient from their attacks this year, and while the Springboks don’t rank among the World Cup’s top five sides in either line breaks or attacking 22 entries per game, they are the only side to have scored a try from over half of their breaks, and also rank second for points scored per 22 entry (3.3).
This opportunistic nature has been further showcased by the manner in which South Africa have punished mistakes by their opposition, scoring a total of nine tries directly following turnovers, at least four more than any other nation.
It’s not just in the opposition 22 where they’ve thrived. South Africa have defended their own try-line just as fervently as they’ve attacked their oppositions’, conceding just 1.2 points on average per defensive entry into their own 22. In total, they’ve conceded a meagre seven tries – only the English squad can boast a lesser number (6).
Both South Africa and England have shown a strong degree of discipline along their path to the final four, conceding just 8.0 and 8.6 penalties per game respectively. Those are averages bettered by just two other teams. Additionally, each side has only been shown one card thus far.
Steve Borthwick has introduced a heavy emphasis on kicking to gain territory since taking the reins at England ahead of this year’s Six Nations. While it didn’t work out for his side in the spring, it’s been a key factor in their impressive performances this autumn. Crucially, England have retained possession from 20% of their kicks in play since the World Cup started, a higher rate than any other team, and with strong kickers sprinkled through the entire backline, it could prove effective in denying South Africa the field position they’re so adept at taking advantage of.
It’s difficult to point out too many weaknesses in South Africa’s system, especially after they managed to see off France in one of the all-time great Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. But their armour isn’t completely impenetrable, as proven by their pool-stage defeat to Ireland, and should Borthwick need any tips on how to overcome this monumental hurdle, he could do worse than take notes on how former England teammate Andy Farrell masterminded that victory. Although Ireland benefitted from a lacklustre kicking display by Manie Libbok – which is another area South Africa have struggled in since – they made life exceedingly difficult for the Boks by winning nine turnovers and restricting them to just four line breaks. In total, South Africa have conceded 82 turnovers, the joint-most of any side, alongside England’s quarter-final opponents, Fiji.
England, meanwhile, have struggled to generate quick ball at the breakdown, completing their attacking rucks in 4.4 seconds on average, 0.8 seconds slower than South Africa, who themselves sit just below the tournament average at 3.6 seconds. The Boks’ defence will relish the extra split second to reorganise themselves between phases in a game that could very well be decided by the narrowest of margins.
South Africa are a proudly intimidating squad. Perhaps surprisingly, though, two of their scariest players are also two of the smallest still left at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse.
Both have been relatively quiet at the tournament so far, notching up just two try involvements each, but their threat is irrepressible. Kolbe has averaged 16.7 metres per carry from his 19 carries at this year’s tournament, more than any other player to have run with the ball on 15+ occasions.
The pair’s performances in the seismic quarter-final win over France showed what they are about. Kolbe carried for 126 metres, including 90 kick-return metres and both scored critical tries that demonstrated their raw pace perfectly. England definitely lack speed in the backfield without Henry Arundell, and if the Boks can get the ball into their wingers’ hands in just the smallest channel of space, it could unlock the entire game as it did in the quarter-final last week and the 2019 final.
Here at Opta Analyst, we’re not ones to say “We told you so”, but… we did. Ben Earl was our player to watch from the England squad and he hasn’t let us down. With a number of back-row injuries and Billy Vunipola’s ban, there was an opportunity for someone to put their hand up, and Earl has done just that. In fact, he’s not just put his hand up, he has jumped up and down and shouted as loud as he can at any opportunity, becoming a minor cult hero (or villain) in the process for his celebrations.
The Saracens back-rower has played more minutes (333) than any other England player at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The 25-year-old has also averaged the most tackles per 80 (14.4) of any of the 52 players still in the tournament to play 200+ mins. For England he tops the charts for the headline stat categories of carries (48), tackles (60), metres gained (253) and defenders beaten (17).
But it’s not all about his work rate. He’s effective too, and in a variety of facets. A gainline success rate of 56% and attacking ruck effectiveness of 89% all point towards a player putting everything on the line to get the go-forward for his team. This weekend will undoubtedly be his biggest test as he comes up against the monstrous Boks pack and centres, not forgetting the Bomb Squad coming off the bench.
England v South Africa Prediction
Win prediction: England 17.6% – Draw 0.3% – South Africa 82.1%
Score prediction: England 14-33 South Africa
While we saw several evenly-matched quarter-final ties, our Opta supercomputer thinks the semi-final ties are far more one-sided. Who will win this one then?
Well, South Africa are the strong favourites ahead of kick-off, with the model predicting them to win in 82.1% of simulations. England are the outsiders, given just a 13.6% chance of avenging their heartbreak from 2019. The winner of this tie at Stade de France, Paris is expected to face New Zealand, who are the clear favourites to overcome Argentina in the other Rugby World Cup semi-final.
England v South Africa Lineups
In team news for England, Freddie Steward returns to England’s team at full-back in place of Marcus Smith in one of three changes to the starting XV.
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Jonny May, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell (c); 9 Alex Mitchell, 1 Joe Marler, 2 Jamie George, 3 Dan Cole, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 George Martin, 6 Courtney Lawes, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Ben Earl.
Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ollie Chessum, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Ollie Lawrence.
South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus has stuck with the same 23-man squad that eliminated France.
South Africa: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Cobus Reinach; 1 Steven Kitshoff, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 3 Frans Malherbe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 5 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 8 Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Handre Pollard, 23 Willie le Roux.