20 October 2023- In the electrifying clash at the Stade de France on Friday, Argentina is set to grace the semi-final stage for the third time, a journey that started back in 2007 and repeated itself in 2015. Meanwhile, the formidable New Zealand squad finds themselves in their ninth Rugby World Cup semi-final, an impressive testament to their rugby dominance.
Marcos Kremer, the unstoppable force in the Argentine lineup, has been a constant presence in their remarkable journey to the semi-finals. He's been a relentless tackling machine, leading the way with a staggering 55 tackles, leaving his fellow back-rower, Juan Martin Gonzalez, trailing behind by 16 tackles. Juan Martin Gonzalez, the only other Puma to have been in the starting lineup for all five matches, has been nothing short of dominant in each of them.
For Sam Cane, the All Blacks' captain, the Rugby World Cup had a frustrating beginning, marred by a back spasm that forced him to sit out New Zealand's first two pool games, including the high-stakes opener against France. However, his triumphant return off the bench against Italy and his belated starting role in the final pool match against Uruguay marked a significant turning point.
In the epic quarter-final showdown against Ireland, Cane showcased his exceptional leadership, making a jaw-dropping 21 tackles, more than anyone else on the pitch. Some keen observers argue that this incredible performance ranks among his finest moments in the iconic black jersey. Cane's resilience and impact on the field prove that even setbacks can't deter a true rugby legend from making his mark on the grandest stage of them all.
Santiago Carreras, a versatile talent in the Argentine squad, embarked on his Rugby World Cup journey as a full-back four years ago at RWC 2019, but fate saw him play on the wing in four games. In the past two years, he underwent a transformation, transitioning to the playmaker role for both his club, England's Gloucester, and his national team. The results have been nothing short of remarkable, and Carreras has embraced the newfound responsibility with open arms in this RWC.
While Argentina has mixed up their game plan with a plethora of attacking kicks, Carreras' exceptional pace and running prowess have remained a vital component of their semi-final journey. The 25-year-old dynamo has carried the ball 46 times across his four starts, not to mention a late replacement outing, leaving an indelible mark on the tournament.
On the other side of the pitch, Richie Mo’unga, the maestro of the fly-half position, has showcased his immense talent throughout this RWC. His opening night performance against France left spectators in awe, marked by a series of pinpoint attacking kicks, a heroic try-saving tackle, and a jaw-dropping range of passing. His spectacular break in a classic quarter-final encounter against Ireland set up a memorable try for Will Jordan, emphasizing the versatile skill set he brings to the All Blacks. Mo'unga's ability to keep the opposition defense guessing is poised to be a key factor in this upcoming semi-final.
Both teams have full-backs who relish launching blistering attacks from deep within their territory. Juan Cruz Mallia, originally a center, has donned the number 15 jersey for the past two years. His relentless ball-carrying has seen him carry the ball a staggering 44 times, and he's accumulated the most meters gained (381) of any Los Pumas player in this competition.
Meanwhile, Beauden Barrett, a RWC 2015 champion and two-time World Rugby Men's 15s Player of the Year, continues to defy the aging process. The 32-year-old has proven himself as New Zealand's top ball-carrier (49) and has covered more ground (488 meters) than any other All Black in this Rugby World Cup. His attacking kicks remain a potent weapon, adding another layer of danger to the All Blacks' arsenal.
In the midst of this thrilling showdown, the two teams are undoubtedly aware of the gravity of the occasion. New Zealand's head coach, Ian Foster, emphasizes the significance of focusing on the present, acknowledging that past results won't guarantee success in this World Cup semi-final. The physicality of the game, akin to their previous battle against Ireland, remains a critical aspect, especially when facing Argentina's combative style of play.
Foster acknowledges the return of number eight Facundo Isa to the Argentine lineup, recognizing him as a powerful and destructive ball-carrier. Discipline, a recurring concern after receiving yellow cards against Ireland, is vital, and the team strives to maintain their improved level of control and accuracy.
As for the presence of legendary former All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter at training, Foster highlights the importance of such legends, their love for the jersey, and the inspiration they bring to the current team. Foster's focus remains firmly on the present and the challenge that lies ahead.
Damian McKenzie, who was on the bench against Ireland but didn't get a chance to play, values the presence and guidance of legends like Dan Carter, particularly in assisting the kickers. He emphasizes that his role on the bench is about making an impact, not trying to prove a point or make up for lost time.
Regarding the crowd's behavior during the haka, McKenzie notes that while it's not within their control, they remain focused on expressing themselves on the field. Their pre-match rituals include some card games and a bit of chocolate the night before, with a focus on staying calm and preparing for a late kick-off.
Anton Lienert-Brown, reflecting on the painful semi-final defeat in 2019, highlights the experience gained and the determination of the team to ensure such a loss doesn't happen again. He underscores that the World Cup is their ultimate goal, and every match is a step toward achieving it. In the next 24 hours, he looks forward to a game of '500' with Damian McKenzie and relishing the build-up to the match.
[Submitted by Kevin Rademeyer]