By Tzevai Chong
In 1987 four teams made the semi-finals of the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The home nation faced (and beat) Wales, while France overcame Australia to make it through to the final.
The All Blacks went on to win the tournament while Wales beat Australia to finish third.
Roll forward 24 years and the semi-finals of the World Cup in New Zealand are again graced by the same four teams.
This time round the hosts will face Tri-Nations rivals Australia and, more importantly, Wales will face France for a place in the final at Eden Park on 23rd October. Can Wales go one better this time round?
The preparation and performance of the two northern hemisphere teams couldn’t have been more different.
While Wales recovered from a narrow 16-17 loss to defending champions South Africa in their opening pool game to power through the remaining games against Samoa, Namibia and Fiji – scoring 180 points and 23 tries in the process – France struggled through games against Japan and Canada, were utterly outclassed by New Zealand and suffered an embarrassing defeat to Tonga in their final game. Thanks to bonus points they still secured second spot and became the first team to qualify for the knockout stages having lost two pool games.
Both teams then romped through their respective quarter finals, France blowing England away with a classy three try first-half performance before holding on for a 19-12 win while Wales out-muscled and out-thought an experienced Irish side to secure their own three try victory by 22-10.
On Saturday morning (GMT) the Six Nations rivals will take to the field in Auckland knowing that a place in the World Cup final is within their grasp.
France have so far been consistently inconsistent (as expected) but everyone knows that on their day they are capable of beating the best in the world – just ask the All Blacks teams of 1999 and 2007. Up front they are powerful and physical, led by captain Thierry Dusatoir, with plenty of pace, craft and guile behind in strike runners Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard.
Wales’ summer camps seem to have done the trick for them as they have proven to be one of, if not the, fittest and most physical teams so in the tournament.
Their game has been built around a rock solid defence led by young captain Sam Warburton and his fellow back-rower Dan Lydiate coupled with an exciting combination of power and pace behind from the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North.
The vital pivot position of outside-half could be a big factor. Morgan Parra was provided plenty of space against England to work his magic but I think he’ll find the Wales defensive effort much tougher to deal with and his inexperience in the pivot position could cost France. For Wales, the loss of Rhys Priestland to a shoulder injury is a blow but his absence provides an opportunity for James Hook to showcase his considerable talents with the ever-reliable Stephen Jones covering from the bench.
It’s a tough one to call. Both teams will know each other well but based on form you’d have to say Wales are the favourites going into the match. The contrast of Welsh youthfulness and confidence against the flamboyance and experience of the French is an exciting match up for the neutrals.
Both teams are capable of playing exciting and beautiful running rugby – just the way it was meant to be played – but they are both equally adept at making the hard yards and doing the dirty work when necessary.
For me, I think the French may have peaked in the England game and could struggle with the new found physicality of their Welsh counterparts. Wales on the other hand have improved game by game and have won deserved praise for the style and manner of their performances.
My heart will always say Wales to win but for the first time in a long while my head can’t find a good enough reason to disagree. France are there for the taking and Wales have the chance to make history.
Today I’ll be dreaming of a devastating and glorious romp to victory as we smash the French by 30 points to make the final. In reality it’ll probably be a lot tighter but I fancy us to score a couple of tries and win.
How does a final score of 28-16 sound? It’s music to my ears.
- Tzevai Chong @digitalshades is the editor and creator sport blog Dodgy Knees and Dirty Balls, run with help from some of his friends. You can also follow them on Twitter @dodgykneesblog