It can all be cart before the horse in the days preceding such big games as we await the World Cup semi-finals in Japan. Coaches take to front and centre – some by choice, others by the path of convention and process. Perhaps it’s mindgames to distract their opponents or perhaps to allow players the shelter before the show. However, if those coaches have got their planning and peaking right then they will slowly step back into the shadows and it will be their players that step into the limelight.
I think we all want the two semi-finals to be decided by moments of brilliance and not crass stupidity as shown by Sébastien Vahaamahina for France in the quarter finals. I also hope we will be talking about how little we noticed the officials and not how much.
I’ve had a look at four players that may be the spark to a victory for their respective teams and I’ll start with the pre-tournament and, in my eyes, still the slight favourites to win the World Cup for the third time in succession – New Zealand and the quite brilliant Beauden Barrett.
I first came across Beauden when he was playing for the New Zealand sevens team in 2010. He was young and pretty green but balanced, quick and not afraid to try things. Fast forward to last weekend and one moment that was actually a botched one, to me summed up his approach to the game. The All Blacks were on the attack, had a knock-on advantage and Barrett had just slightly overrun the ball. He tried to do a back heel. He missed the ball but it revealed so much more.
Not many would open themselves up to look a bit daft by trying something he knew his skills had a small chance of pulling off. He is brimming with confidence and swagger right now – as that attacking threat at the back and second receiver at the front, he is unlike anyone else in the tournament. The other three sides have not got a full-back who offers them so much in those areas. If there is one player England need to subdue for the entire match, it’s him.
In their quarter-final, hosts Japan finally run aground against South Africa. Makazole Mapimpi, the Boks’ 29-year-old wing from Mdantsane, racked up his 13th try in 12 Test matches. Cheslin Kolbe normally is the headliner but Makazole is a deadly finisher. Opportunities will be few against Wales but the chance of him converting even the slimmest of those is high.
The first member of his family to play rugby, he attended schools that had no history of producing players and worked his way through the levels t by scorching through defences and scoring tries. The emphasis in the semi-finals will be scoring points against miserly defences. That’s what Mapimpi does.
South Africa will have to get the ball to him and players such as Faf de Klerk are going to be pivotal but when you get to this stage it’s high success rates in your kicking and high conversion rates in your attacks that count. That’s his strength. Not 90m bursts up field so much but like a running-back in the NFL, getting those crucial final yards right.
They will have to get past Justin Tipuric, however, whose bottomless box of tools will give Warren Gatland’s men options in almost every area of the game. You see it not only his high tackle count and work rate in defence that gives his team a vital link in Shaun Edward’s defensive plans. It’s also Tirpuric’s attacking prowess, in which his Sevens background is definitely an advantage: he passes brilliantly and has a loping stride that often catches out a defender. He can also pick lines that get him on the edges of players to bust through or pass out of to break a defensive line. At the lineout he has been used a lot as a jumper and that is both in attack and can be in defence.
If he was in your fantasy football team he would be Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kevin De Bruyne and Tammy Abraham wrapped up into one. Priceless to hopes of Wales winning the World Cup.
Finally it’s Owen Farrell. This is the most important game he has ever played in. Without him, England will not win the World Cup. I could have tried to be clever and picked a player from another area of the starting XV to say how important he will be but it would be all noise and no signal. Owen Farrell is that Jenga piece that you if removed on Saturday, it will all fall down.
He offers something different to the other key players this weekend. He hasn’t got any real flair and you won’t see outrageous pieces of high risk skill. What you get is a pragmatic precision that puts England into the right areas and plays at the right tempo needed. His one achilles was no-arm tackles and that looks to have disappeared.
He has also been accused of some hot-headed behaviour in the past but that is not here iand it will be his opposite number, Richie Fou’a Mo’unga, who is the most likely to crack first. Farrell knows his tactical kicking to gain ball back or apply pressure to the New Zealander needs to be on the yen as well but he will rise to that and thrive. New Zealand have the edge but with Farrell playing at his very best, that edge may slowly disappear.