In the highly anticipated second semi-final set to unfold at the iconic Stade de France on Saturday, England and South Africa will lock horns at this stage for the sixth time, creating a spectacle that promises to be a thrilling battle. The Red Rose boasts a remarkable track record, having emerged victorious in four of their five previous semi-final encounters, while the Springboks have clinched the title on three occasions, each time following their semi-final triumph.
Maro Itoje and Eben Etzebeth stand as towering figures at the heart of their respective country's forward packs, adding an element of intense rivalry to this clash. This semi-final marks the eighth time these formidable locks will face off, including their involvement in three British and Irish Lions tests in 2021. Their head-to-head encounters have seen England and South Africa claim two wins each, with Etzebeth's pivotal role in the Springboks' Lions series victory standing out as a significant highlight.
Both Itoje and Etzebeth excel in exerting pressure on the opposition's lineout, with a knack for creating turnovers through their formidable tackling abilities. Etzebeth, in particular, has shone at this Rugby World Cup, notching up an impressive seven dominant tackles, while Itoje has showcased his skills with three crucial breakdown steals.
The inside centers of both teams hold the key to breaching their opponents' defense and generating attacking momentum. Manu Tuilagi, a powerful ball-carrier for England, made a notable entry onto the international stage just before the 2011 Rugby World Cup, amassing nine tries in his first 17 tests. Injuries curtailed his appearances in the 2015 World Cup, but he made a resounding return in time to contribute to England's journey to the 2019 final, marking his third appearance at a Rugby World Cup.
Damian de Allende, a year younger at 31, is no less influential in the South African camp. The Springboks' center has made his mark in the tournament, scoring a pivotal try in their quarter-final win over France and surpassing all teammates with 14 defenders beaten.
A pivotal aspect of this second semi-final will likely be the battle in the lineout, where hookers Jamie George and Mbongeni Mbonambi will strive to execute their throws accurately under intense opposition pressure. George, England's 32-year-old hooker, has demonstrated unwavering consistency in the set-pieces, boasting an 88 percent lineout success rate and a perfect record when close to the opposition's try line.
South Africa's coaching staff's trust in the durable Mbonambi was evident when they opted not to bring in another frontline hooker after Malcolm Marx's injury. Mbonambi, also 32, played a pivotal role in matches, including 64 minutes against Ireland in the pool stage and a late appearance in the epic quarter-final against France.
In light of recent reports of a 'death threat' made against South African scrum-half Cobus Reinach following their quarter-final win over France, the South African coaching staff expressed their awareness of the situation and emphasized their commitment to protecting their players and their opposition to such behavior.
The selection of the England team has not yielded significant surprises, with Marcus Smith ruled out due to concussion, resulting in the elevation of George Martin, a promising young player, to the starting lineup. England, in general, has evolved into a physically imposing team, impressing with their performance against Fiji in the quarter-finals.
While England's recent form might raise questions, South Africa's coaching staff recognizes the potential of their semi-final opponents, particularly noting their physicality and the example set by their previous performance against New Zealand in Japan.
Acknowledging that England has evolved under the guidance of Steve Borthwick and presents a different challenge compared to 2019, the South African coaching staff refrains from underestimating their formidable opponents. They commend England's adaptability and acknowledge the physicality they bring to the field.
Mbongeni Mbonambi, the South African hooker, addresses the notion of England seeking revenge for their 2019 Rugby World Cup defeat. He underscores the importance of not relying solely on emotions during a match and emphasizes the team's focus on strategy and execution.
Regarding the recent HIA assessment during the France match, Mbonambi assures that all medical protocols were followed, and his well-being was the primary concern.
When asked about their status as favorites, Mbonambi and the South African team maintain that they do not see themselves as favorites and refrain from labeling England as underdogs, expressing respect for their formidable opponents.
Despite the thrilling semi-final clash in rugby, South Africa's participation in the Cricket World Cup on the same day is acknowledged. The South African coaching staff and team convey their support and solidarity with the Proteas, emphasizing that they are proud representatives of South Africa, united in their efforts on the world stage.
[Submitted by Estea Rademeyer]