A weekend that threatened to herald a change to the Rugby World Cup pecking order instead saw the Southern Hemisphere powers’ hegemony confirmed as teams from the Rugby Championship filled three of the four semifinal slots.
It was, however, a closely run thing as first New Zealand edged top ranked Ireland on Saturday and then defending champions South Africa won by a single point over hosts France on Sunday in two extraordinary matches at the Stade de France.
With Argentina coming from behind to beat Wales, only England, modest victors over gallant Fiji in the other quarterfinal, are left to represent the Six Nations powers but will go into this weekend’s semifinal with low expectations.
Only four nations have won the nine previous World Cups – three each for the All Blacks and Springboks, two for Australia and England’s success 20 years ago.
France and Ireland were expected to change that statistic and rightly held out high hopes, only for them to come crashing down in a blow not only to the Northern Hemisphere sides but also the tournament itself.
The legions of green-clad Irish fans, who filled Parisian streets at the weekend, brought a brilliant atmosphere while home interest will dull considerably after France’s heart-breaking 29-28 loss to South Africa.
Ireland have had the better of New Zealand in recent times after breaking a 111-year duck by beating the All Blacks for the first time in 2016 but on Saturday were never able to get their noses in front and despite a desperate late charge could not break down the Kiwi defence.
They might not get a similar chance for a while yet.
“You’ve a group of senior players who are moving on. It’ll be tough to lose fellas like that – big characters, big players for us,” said Peter O’Mahony as he considers his future while the likes of Johnny Sexton, Connor Murray and Keith Earls head off into retirement.
France forced South Africa to hold on desperately at the end of their clash, too, and there was home frustration over the refereeing and some uncharacteristically poor defence from a side who enjoyed fanatical support but could not make it count.
New Zealand and South Africa will now be heavily fancied to advance to the final with the All Blacks up against Argentina on Friday and South Africa taking on England on Saturday.
Both games are at the Stade de France, where crowds touching 80 000 have turned the tournament into a spine-tingling experience for spectators with gladiatorial affairs out on the pitch. – SuperSport