LONDON — The Rugby World Cup has boiled down to a contest between the four teams from the Rugby Championship, the annual competition between the sport's powerhouse teams in the southern hemisphere.
It's the first time that all four semifinalists have come from the same hemisphere, and the southerly breeze has caused some turbulence in Europe.
The defending champion New Zealand All Blacks have hit form at the right time — if it's fair to describe a team that loses so rarely as peaking — with a record 62-13 quarterfinal win over France. The All Blacks play long-time rival South Africa on Saturday in a semifinal featuring the top two teams in the history of the sport.
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer said the New Zealanders are "probably the best team that's ever played the game."
He said South Africans would have to play the game of their lives to reach the final, but was convinced by the way they'd rebounded from a shocking opening loss to Japan that they were capable of that.
The All Blacks have lost only three test matches since reclaiming the World Cup title in 2011 — one of those was against South Africa last year, and one was to Australia in August to surrender the Rugby Championship title.
Two-time World Cup champion Australia plays Argentina on Sunday, going in as favourite despite what coach Michael Cheika said was a "great escape" against Scotland in the quarterfinals. His Wallabies won 35-34 with a contentious, last-minute penalty goal that caused outrage in Scotland. Argentina has reached the semifinals only once before, and hopes to be the first country to reach the finals of both the rugby and soccer World Cups. Soccer great Diego Maradona will be at the semifinals supporting the Pumas.
Some things to watch in the semifinals this weekend at Twickenham Stadium:
TRY TIME: Springboks winger Bryan Habana shares the Rugby World Cup try-scoring record with Jonah Lomu, the All Blacks great who bulldozed and barged his way across the line for 15 tries in the 1995 and '99 tournaments. Habana scored three tries in a group-stage win over the United States, and can take the record in his own right if he scores once more. It's almost bound to happen with South Africa guaranteed two more matches — the winners go into the final, the losers into a third-place game.
While Habana is an old hand, having won the World Cup in 2007 in the first of his three trips to the tournament, New Zealand has a young winger in the mould of Lomu. Julian Savea earned the comparison after bumping off three defenders on his way to the line for one of his three tries against France. He leads the tournament with eight.
NO. 10: It's a significant number in England, home of the PM on Downing Street. At English rugby HQ on Saturday, it's the number reserved for the playmakers. Flyhalf Dan Carter, the top scorer in international rugby, has been directing the New Zealand attack for 110 test matches. Like a quarterback in American football, his decision-making is the key to most plays. Carter usually decides when to run, pass or kick and is pivotal to New Zealand's success. He was part of the squad at the 2011 World Cup, but was injured and missed the final. He's determined to qualify this time.
BREAKDOWN: Here's the lowdown on the breakdown: Whichever team dominates in the tackle area usually wins the game. The key here is the backrower (look for jersey Nos. 6, 7 and 8) who gets to the tackled player first. The attacking team aims to retain possession and recycle the ball for another phase of attack, while the defending team wants its first player at the breakdown to poach the ball. Richie McCaw has long been among the best in the game in that department, winning turnovers for New Zealand or otherwise disrupting the opponent.
McCaw will duel with Springboks flanker Schalk Burger, who survived a life-threatening bout of bacterial meningitis since winning the World Cup in 2007. He is constantly near the ball, and has had more carries than any other player at the tournament.
On Sunday, David Pocock will return for Australia and resume his partnership with Michael Hooper. He was injured for Australia's quarterfinal win over Scotland, and the Wallabies missed his regular supply of turnovers.
SCRUM: This is where two packs comprising eight big men try to shove each other off the ball. Superiority in this set-piece can give a team the psychological edge. New Zealand and South Africa should be evenly matched at scrum time. On Sunday, Argentina is likely to rely on its traditional strength in the scrum. While they've embraced the running rugby style of the Antipodean teams, the Pumas know they'll be well matched in the backline. Australia has vastly improved its scrummaging under Argentine coach Mario Ledesma, but after muscling up against England and Wales, appeared vulnerable again in the set-piece against Scotland.
John Pye, The Associated Press