We dig into the key stats, talking points, data visualisations and predictions from a pulsating semi-final weekend of Rugby World Cup action.
And then there were two.
It’s testament to the quality and competitiveness of this year’s Rugby World Cup that for the first time ever, we’ll witness a final between two sides who lost a pool game. That’s after the last team with a 100% record in the tournament, England, fell in an agonisingly close contest against South Africa.
In fact, only once before has a side gone on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup after losing a pool stage match, and that was four years ago when the Springboks went on to deny England after losing their opening match against New Zealand.
The two most successful teams in World Cup history will meet in the final for just the second time, after the All Blacks’ seismic win over Argentina and South Africa’s dramatic comeback against England saw the two book their place in next weekend’s showpiece event.
Before the tournament reaches its climax on Saturday, let’s pause briefly and delve into how two of rugby’s oldest rivals secured their passage into Saturday’s final in Saint-Denis.
Argentina 6-44 New Zealand
An early spell of possession for Argentina was capped off by the boot of Emiliano Boffelli, who put Los Pumas 3-0 up after five minutes. For a brief moment, it seemed possible that Argentina might just defy the rugby Gods and deny New Zealand the Rugby World Cup final appearance that perhaps looked unlikely after a record defeat to South Africa in their final warmup match and a first ever pool stage loss to France in their opener.
However, the following 10 minutes saw a quickfire double from the All Blacks and with it, this semi-final tie started to have an air of inevitability about it.
Whilst Argentina were heavy underdogs coming into this match, Argentina fans will be far from pleased with the manner of the defeat. Not just because of the margin, which was the second largest ever in a men’s Rugby World Cup semi-final – behind only New Zealand’s drubbing of Wales in 1987 (49-6) – but because of how different the outcome could have been had the Pumas taken some of their chances. The All Blacks made just one more attacking 22 entry (10) than Argentina (9) over the course of the match, but crucially, they scored a try from seven of those, compared to Argentina’s zero. Overall, New Zealand averaged 4.4 points per entry, over six times as many as Argentina (0.67).
New Zealand’s X factor lay out wide, with Will Jordan becoming just the third player to score a hat-trick in a men’s Rugby World Cup semi-final after Adam Ashley-Cooper for Australia against Argentina in 2015 and Jonah Lomu versus England in 1995.
Jordan now sits on 31 tries in 30 appearances for the All Blacks. For comparison, it took Lomu 50 caps to reach the same tally. Jordan now has eight tries at this year’s Rugby World Cup – the joint most by any player in a campaign, alongside two All Blacks (Lomu in 1999 and Julian Savea in 2015) and a Springbok (Bryan Habana in 2007).
On the other flank, Mark Telea beat 14 Pumas defenders, the most by any player in a semi-final, besting the previous record by three, which was set by compatriot John Kirwan against Australia in 1991 (11). Overall, New Zealand evaded 51 of Argentina’s attempted tackles, another record at this stage of the competition, and by some distance. The previous record was also set by the All Blacks four years ago, when they beat 34 defenders against England.
England 15-16 South Africa
Saturday’s semi-final was a repeat of the showpiece event in Yokohama four years ago, but what wasn’t repeated was the convincing manner in which South Africa dispatched England to lift their third Webb Ellis Cup. In fact, South Africa led this match for a total of just two minutes and 58 seconds, but such is their pedigree at this level that Handrè Pollard’s 78th minute penalty was enough to guide the Springboks to their fourth Rugby World Cup final overall and their second in a row. Any onlooking Welsh fans will have received an unwanted reminder of their narrow semi-final defeat to South Africa in 2019 which was also settled by a late three-pointer from Pollard.
England failed to make a single line break during the course of the match, the first time a team has failed to do so in this year’s competition. It only happened once in 2019 as well, and that was also due to a stringent defensive effort by South Africa, who prevented Namibia from penetrating their defensive line during a dominating pool-stage victory. Therefore, as was the case in the 2019 final, England had to rely on Owen Farrell for all their points. He obliged, but the point remains that England have now failed to score a single try against South Africa across their four meetings in the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup.
That’s not to say England played poorly, far from it. Steve Borthwick’s side constantly frustrated the Springboks, forcing them into conceding 17 turnovers. This was largely down to England’s strong kicking game, a constant theme throughout this year’s tournament. England made 41 kicks in play, retaining possession from over a quarter of them (11). It was only the fifth time a team has retained possession from eight or more kicks this tournament, and four of those instances were recorded by England.
Borthwick’s men came unstuck at the scrum, however, conceding four crucial penalties. The last time they conceded more scrum penalties in a single match was the 2019 final against South Africa (five). England’s scrum struggles were matched by South Africa’s lineout woes though – the Springboks lost four lineouts on their own throw, thanks in part to an uncharacteristically shaky showing from Bongi Mbonambi, who was penalised for not throwing straight on two separate occasions. The last time South Africa lost more lineouts in a World Cup match was all the way back in 2003, against, you guessed it, England (5).
It’d be difficult to blame South Africa for being worn out following their epic quarter-final clash against France, an encounter that had most people exhausted just from watching it. And while a hint of fatigue may be partly to blame for the Springboks’ slow start, the last-gasp manner of their victory and the insatiable appetite shown by the likes of Franco Mostert, who completed a monstrous 18 tackles without missing any, shows they still have enough gas in the tank ahead of Saturday, which promises to be the cherry on top of a World Cup which will be talked about for years to come.
England, meanwhile, have a third-place playoff to prepare for against an Argentine side who will be keen to avenge their opening round defeat and match their best-ever finish in a World Cup, which also came in France, 16 years ago.
Usually once you reach the final, the eventual winner of a tournament is easier to predict. But this year’s Rugby World Cup final may be the hardest to call ever.
Going into the tournament our tournament predictor could barely separate South Africa (20.5%) and New Zealand (20.2%) who were two of four teams that our supercomputer gave a 20%+ chance of lifting the trophy.
Little separates the sides as we go into the showpiece event. Our tournament predictor suggests the Springboks are marginally more likely to have their name on the Webb Ellis Cup for a fourth time come Saturday night and it predicts they will win by a two-point margin (25-23).
After consecutive one-point victories in the knockout stages, it looks like Boks fans are set for another nail-biting 80 minutes this weekend. It will all be worth it should they repeat their 2019 heroics in France this weekend.