A fixture that rugby fans the world over repeatedly coveted during the last cycle, particularly early in Eddie Jones’ tenure, England versus New Zealand on Saturday is one of the more salivating Rugby World Cup semi-finals in recent memory.
Both England and New Zealand have cruised through the tournament, with the opener against the Springboks the biggest test of the All Blacks so far, and both teams look to be in strong form and relative good health going into this blockbuster encounter.
Neither coach will have any excuses when the teams meet in Yokohama on Saturday and in a bid to predict this cross-hemisphere rivalry, we have selected our composite XV from the two squads. Are the reigning Rugby World Cup champions still feared enough to dominate this XV or have England managed to close the gap sufficiently on them to even up the allocation?
- Beauden Barrett, New Zealand
Barrett has faced a similar transition to the one Elliot Daly underwent a couple of years ago, moving to play full-back despite having played the majority of his career at another position. For Barrett, already one of the world’s very best players, that transition has been slightly more seamless. He brings all of his attacking verve to the 15 jersey, as well as surprising reliability in defence and the air.
- Anthony Watson, England
Sevu Reece has had a fantastic year or two on the pitch, but Watson was in the mix for one of, if not the most effective wing in world rugby a couple of seasons ago. He was a fixture in the British and Irish Lions XV and although a significant injury has held him back more recently, he looks to be returning to close to his best once again.
- Jack Goodhue, New Zealand
The all-round game of Goodhue gets him the nod here, with Henry Slade a fine attacking weapon for England, though perhaps not as adept defensively as his teammate, Jonathan Joseph. Both Anton Lienert-Brown and Manu Tuilagi would be potential selections also, were it not for them being used at inside centre in the quarter-finals.
- Manu Tuilagi, England
Speaking of Tuilagi, he is one of the players that is impossible to leave out. On his day, defences will have no answer for the Leicester Tiger, whose recent run free from injury has seen him become a very welcome addition to Jones’ and England’s armoury.
- George Bridge, New Zealand
This is tough on Jonny May, whose consistency, speed and kick-chase ability all have him up there with the very best wings in the world. Bridge is arguably New Zealand’s answer to May, though, ticking all of the same boxes as the Englishman does. If we tossed the coin again, it might come down differently.
- Owen Farrell, England
Having taken some flak for flatter performances in the pool stage, England’s win over Australia was a potent reminder of Farrell’s ability on both sides of the ball. He can manage a game with the boot, he can unlock defences with an array of flat and long passes and his tackling, when he doesn’t stray too high, is the best of any fly-half in world rugby.
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Watch: Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell speak to the press after their win over Australia
- Aaron Smith, New Zealand
Even during Smith’s dip in form a season or two ago, he was still widely regarded as the pinnacle of international scrum-halves. Now he is back to close to his best and his control and tempo has been vital for the All Blacks, just as he will need it to continue to be, with TJ Perenara breathing down his neck each week.
- Mako Vunipola, England
The carrying, offloading, work rate, engine and work in the defensive line and at the breakdown, Vunipola is the archetype of the modern-day prop. Take nothing away from Joe Moody, who arguably has an edge on Vunipola at the scrum and is himself one of the very best in the world, but on overall game, it’s hard to look beyond Vunipola.
- Jamie George, England
This selection may not go down well in New Zealand but Dane Coles isn’t playing quite at the level he was prior to injury and though Codie Taylor is exceptional, so is George. The Saracen is arguably the best lineout thrower in international rugby and that has become an important platform for England to launch their attacks from. Like Vunipola, his work rate in the loose is breath-taking.
- Kyle Sinckler, England
An all-England front row might seem surprising given that New Zealand could have an edge at the scrum on Saturday, but the modern game has shown that front rows have to do more than that now and the scrum has become a far less decisive factor in deciding results. Sinckler’s fly-half playmaking skills and turn of pace separate him, here.
- Brodie Retallick, New Zealand
The standard bearer of international second rows, Retallick is a no-brainer selection and the bigger debate comes over who partners him in the engine room. Like the English front row, Retallick is a calm and composed ball-handler, whilst also offering set-piece stability and physical presence.
- Maro Itoje, England
A tough call on Sam Whitelock but we are perhaps beginning to see the effects of age on his game, whereas Itoje is rapidly approaching his prime and is a genuine difference-maker at the highest level. If Itoje can disrupt New Zealand’s lineout and breakdown work in Yokohama, he’ll go a long way to helping England to a Rugby World Cup final.
- Ardie Savea, New Zealand
Savea vs Tom Curry is the rugby equivalent of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Both have been in sublime form at this tournament and though we have leaned towards Savea’s attacking and ball-carrying impact, as well as his added experience, no one should write Curry off from coming out on top in this contest at the weekend.
- Sam Cane, New Zealand
Another tough call on a young English flanker, this time Sam Underhill, though Cane has that added experience and nous that we talked about in relation to Savea. In four years’ time this selection could be reversed but for now, Cane still has the edge on the promising English openside.
- Kieran Read, New Zealand
Plenty were guilty of thinking Read may have reached his peak and been on the decline over the last year or two, but he has defied all of those assertions with a storming Rugby World Cup to date. Billy Vunipola, on the other hand, has been industrious and effective, without necessarily stamping his authority on games in the fashion that we have become accustomed to. Throw in Read’s lineout ability and leadership and he steals a march here.
Watch: Steven Hansen and Kieran Read speak to the press following their win over Ireland
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