On paper and on the pitch, New Zealand is seen by many as the finest rugby nation in the world.
The Kiwis have long dominated the game internationally – ever since World Rugby rankings were introduced in 2003, New Zealand’s All Blacks team has held the number one spot longer than all the other teams, combined.
Keep readinglist of 1 item
Argentina, Fiji, France, Ireland, Japan, Portugal, Samoa, South Africa and Tonga have all suffered their greatest rugby defeats at the hands of New Zealand.
But as Australia proved in August, and Ireland in 2016, the All Blacks can be beaten.
And England, ranked number two in the world, might just be the team to do it.
Saturday’s World Cup semifinal at 5pm local time (8:00 GMT) in Japan is the first of two north-south clashes this weekend with the potential to be all-time classic matches. Wales take on the rejuvenated South Africa on Sunday.
New Zealand are bidding for an unprecedented third successive title, and start as favourites after winning 15 of their last 16 clashes with England.
But coach Eddie Jones’ side arrive in Yokohama full of confidence after thrashing Australia in the last eight, and former England scrum half and 2003 World Cup winner Matt Dawson, believes they have the quality to upset the odds.
He warns, however, that they will need to be “perfect”.
“England have some world-class players. If that group play to their best, England will win,” he told BBC 5 Live on Friday.
“It starts with individual performance. The front row, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell are world-class. Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi and Elliot Daly must step up to that level.
“Tom Curry and Sam Underhill have got to obliterate the opposition. Then England have got to assume that they make no mistakes at the weekend – no offsides, no penalties, nothing. They have got to play the perfect game.”
‘Fast and furious’
New Zealand demolished Ireland 46-14 in the quarterfinals, their 18th successive World Cup win.
However, Dawson thinks Jones’ decision to start with Farrell at inside centre and George Ford at fly-half will give England a creative edge even though he has some concern over Ford’s reliability.
“Jones wants to play fast and furious with lots of phases,” Dawson added. “He sees how New Zealand reorganise as a weakness.
“I was surprised that George Ford was recalled. I have the tiniest bit of concern about him playing under the most enormous pressure. He sometimes hasn’t been able to replicate his club and international form. We’ll find out.”
Hosts Japan dropped out in the quarterfinals with a loss to South Africa, former World Cup winners and a colossus of the game, but that has failed to dampen the thrill of the tournament.
has some tactical master-stroke up his sleeve – and I’m most excited about seeing what it is and whether it works”]
“The atmosphere here is really special, particularly being in neutral territory,” said Vinay Patel, an England fan from London who travelled to Japan for the tournament. “The constant Tokyo buzz interspersed with friendly South African and Kiwi accents has been prompting spontaneous in-depth rugby chats.
“Both teams are set up perfectly for the game,” he told Al Jazeera. “Performances have been warming up nicely and there are no significant injury concerns. I’m convinced that Eddie [Jones] has some tactical master-stroke up his sleeve – and I’m most excited about seeing what it is and whether it works.”
But the imperious gladiators of the All Blacks will be working hard to ensure the 80-minute game produces no upset.
Captain Kieran Read has spent much of the past two years working his way back to fitness following back surgery in 2017, but the rampaging number eight is showing signs he is peaking at the right time.
It’ll be Read’s 34th birthday as he takes to the field to lead New Zealand in his 51st test, and the fact he is at the tournament at all is testament to his strength, dedication and sheer tenacity.
Pundits have called his performances this year “lacklustre”, but coaches Steve Hansen and Ian Foster caution that the type of back surgery he had would take time to recover from.
“It does take time, it was just because when your nerves are blocked and not working properly, your whole body basically shuts down,” Read told reporters this week.
“I’ve worked hard to get back to it and it’s probably taken a bit longer than what I anticipated.
“But I had this goal of what this tournament would bring, and I knew where I wanted to be and that’s where I am now. I’m excited at what’s coming.”
Read’s excitement was no more evident than against Ireland in the World Cup quarterfinal last week, when he co-led the “Kapa o Pango” haka with scrumhalf TJ Perenara and exuded a sense of bristling aggression.
Read was massive on defence against the boys in green, making 14 crunching tackles and stinging in all contact areas.
He also showcased that he was still potent in attack, setting up Aaron Smith’s first try, while he smashed into two defenders, got his hands free of the tackle and popped the ball to hooker Codie Taylor to score early in the second half.
Fans ‘in for a treat’
Read, however, is also winding down the clock on his test career, having signed a contract with Japanese club Toyota that starts after the World Cup. While most rugby fanatics would settle for simply being able to play their favourite sport after major surgery, Read sees anything other than a third winners’ medal as a failure.
“Of course, people are going to say we’ve failed if we don’t win, but the nature of the All Blacks and the scrutiny we have, the expectation is to win,” he said.
“England are good enough to win and that’s all we’re focusing on.”
As the game approaches, the excitement is palpable.
“It’ll be close, said Vinay Patel, heading for the fan zone. “My head says the All Blacks will win, but my heart is forever with England.”
Whatever happens, Dawson believes fans like Vinay, and the 55 million in Japan alone expected to watch the game on TV, are in for a treat.
“It’s a pressure-cooker environment,” he said. “For England, it doesn’t get any bigger than playing New Zealand for a place in the World Cup final – it’s the stuff of dreams.”