Can the red-hot world champion Kiwis be stopped? Credit: SWpix.com Copyright: SWpix.com
New Zealand v England
Wembley Stadium, London
Saturday 1pm (UK time)
Sunday 12am (AEDT), Saturday 11pm (AEST)
On paper, the first leg of the big Wembley Stadium double-header should be the far more closely contested of the two World Cup semi-finals.
A New Zealand outfit that has been in simply blistering form so far in the tournament is yet to face top-ranked opposition and – with due deference to Samoa, France, Papua New Guinea and Scotland – the Kiwis will need to be braced for a big step up in class here.
England certainly haven't been the most dominant side in the tournament so far but they've still been far too good for the minnows and took the fight strongly to Australia in the opening game of the Cup.
It should be a fascinating clash with plenty of subplots. A few monstrous bodies and skilful pairs of hands in the respective forward packs courtesy of James Graham and the Burgess brothers up against the likes of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam Kasiano, Sonny Bill Williams and Frank Pritchard. And key men from each side will face off against their South Sydney clubmates: Kiwi hooker Issac Luke and centre Bryson Goodwin against Sam and George Burgess for England. Canterbury prop Graham will also line up opposite a couple of his NRL clubmates in Kasiano and Prichard.
The clash also features arguably the two most in-form playmakers in the tournament in Kiwi pivot Kieran Foran and England fullback Sam Tomkins, who each have seven try assists to their name to be equal tournament leaders.
In team news, Gareth Widdop will start at five-eighth for England with Rangi Chase surprisingly dropped, while Jason Nightingale is set to replace the injured Manu Vatuvei for England.
Watch Out New Zealand: England's most potent threats in the tournament to date have come from some in-form men in the outside backs – Tomkins has crossed 100 metres in every game bar the opener against the Aussies, with 19 tackle breaks, and as mentioned has set up seven tries. Meanwhile bullocking Leeds winger Ryan Hall's eight tries have him comfortably atop the try scorers list at this stage of the tournament. New Zealand showed they're capable of leaking a few points in their first game when Samoa starting throwing the ball around; England will be bearing that in mind as this contest goes on.
Watch Out England: The Kiwi 6-7-9 combination of Foran, Johnson and Luke has been devastating so far: the halves have 13 try assists between them, with Johnson himself having scored 62 points from 25 goals and three tries. Luke, meanwhile – amazingly for a hooker – is near the top of the tournament's run metres list with his crafty dummy-half scoots, averaging 116 metres per game while repeatedly catching opposition markers out and putting his supporting men into space.
Key Match-Up: Sam Burgess v Sonny Bill Williams.
This is the sort of one-on-one match-up that has had us salivating in anticipation through the group stages. Burgess and Williams had some great tussles in the 2013 NRL season for Souths and the Roosters respectively, including some massive collisions. Burgess lined up Williams and steamrolled him in the season opener before Williams returned serve in Round 26. The pair is responsible for arguably the two best individual performances of the tournament to date: Burgess dismantled Fiji with 182 metres, eight tackle breaks, three line breaks, four offloads and a try; while Williams was possibly even more devastating against Papua New Guinea, scoring a hat trick (which could easily have been five tries) to go with 158 metres, nine tackle breaks, eight offloads, four line breaks and a try assist. Either of these men could easily put their mark on the game and their clash in the middle could go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Where It Will be Won: The big men up front. Both sides have plenty of exciting talent in the backs but if Graham, the Burgesses, Chris Hill and Co. can't keep a lid on the likes of Williams, Waerea-Hargreaves, Kasiano, Pritchard and Jesse Bromwich, England will be right up against it trying to get some opportunities to those attacking players out wide.
Televised: 7mate – Live from 11:30pm Saturday (NSW); 10:30am (Qld)
The Way We See It: On paper this will be a genuine contest but the Kiwis have certainly looked more dangerous over the opening four games. The only real question mark over them is the lack of close, arm-wrestle style footy they've had to this point, while England will have a parochial home crowd on their side. Complacency certainly won't be an issue for either side so we'll take New Zealand's monster pack and classy playmakers to be the difference – Kiwis by 12.
*Statistics: NRL Stats