Key matchups in NZ vs South Africa in Rugby World Cup semi
LONDON (AP) A look at key player matchups for the Rugby World Cup semifinal between New Zealand and South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday:
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer voiced what fans and critics have long expected; the semifinal will come down to ”an unbelievable battle between the loose forwards.”
In the black corner is Richie McCaw, the inspirational captain and poacher who led New Zealand to its title on home soil and wants to be the first skipper to successfully defend the World Cup. The 34-year-old McCaw has been integral to the success of the All Blacks, who have lost just three tests since winning the title in 2011. His ability to win ball at the breakdown and disrupt the continuity of rival teams is legendary and, after a relatively slow start to the tournament by his standards, he was back in form to kick off the knockout stage with a big quarterfinal win over France. With Kieran Read at No. 8 and Jerome Kaino, it’s a damaging backrow combination.
In the green corner is Schalk Burger, who has had more ball carries in the tournament than any other player, and who was back at his best in the quarterfinal win over Wales. He overcome bacterial meningitis in 2013 and has the renewed energy of a man who has shrugged off a life-threatening sickness. He is third on the list of top tacklers at the tournament, and determined to add a second world championship to the one he collected in 2007. His never-take-a-backward-step attitude will be critical to South Africa’s prospects of combating McCaw and Co. Beside him are Francois Louw and No. 8 Duane Vermeulen.
”I’d back them in any fight, any day,” Meyer said of his backrow.
COLES vs. DU PLESSIS
Recent frontrow changes in both teams put extra focus on the hookers. Dane Coles likes to run with the ball when he gets a chance to work the fringes around the tackle area, adding another attacking dimension for New Zealand. His precision in the set-pieces means the All Blacks rarely concede cheap possession. The older and more experienced Bismarck du Plessis has become the mainstay of the Springboks frontrow after serving an apprenticeship under John Smit. He has a high work-rate and revels in the rugged, physical contests.
CARTER vs. POLLARD
The 33-year-old Dan Carter leads the scoring list in test rugby with 1,569 points, including 53 in four matches in this tournament. Despite his reputation and status, he had to work hard to secure the starting flyhalf role for the All Blacks in England. He clicked into gear in the last pool game against Tonga with his running, kicking, and distributing, and was instrumental in the massive quarterfinal win over France, again stepping up his game. He has made more ground than any of the other flyhalves still in the tournament. Carter has never played in a World Cup final, missing the 2011 decider because of injury.
Opposing him will be the 21-year-old, 18-cap Handre Pollard. He is the new-age version of the traditional Springbok No. 10, with a strong kicking game and strong emphasis on playing for field position. He’s a good foil for scrumhalf and captain Fourie du Preez on his inside, two exciting young centers on his outside, and two of the best finishers in the game outside them.
One of Julian Savea’s three tries against France – the one where he bumped off three defenders including a prop on a bullocking burst into the left corner – had fans comparing the All Blacks winger with the great Jonah Lomu. He has also shown he’s got the speed and footwork to be a traditional finisher, and leads the tournament with eight tries. He has 38 tries in 39 tests. On the other end of the size scale, and on the opposite side of the field, New Zealand has the fast and industrious Nehe Milner-Skudder, who burst onto the scene this season in Super Rugby for the Hurricanes. He has outright speed and an attitude that gets him to the line against bigger men – he has six tries in five tests.
Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen need no introductions, being World Cup winners in 2007. Habana equaled Lomu’s Rugby World Cup record of 15 career tries with a hat trick against the United States, giving him 64 tries in his 115 tests. He has five tries in this tournament, he has speed off the mark, innate positional sense, and the supreme knack of showing up in the right place at try-time. Pietersen scored a hat trick against Samoa, South Africa’s first match after the shocking opening loss to Japan, and crossed again in the win over Scotland.