England were stunning winners against New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals, destroying the title ambitions of the mighty defending champions.
A 19-7 triumph last Saturday sets up Eddie Jones’ side for a shot at South Africa in the final, and already England are being tagged as firm favourites.
But the Springboks side that edged past Wales to reach the showpiece match will have plenty to say about the destination of the trophy this weekend.
And history is littered with examples of teams bringing out their best for semi-final matches, only to fall short on the big day.
Here is a look at some of the notable occasions when sides have not saved their best until last.
1987: Rugby World Cup – France stun hosts, surrender to All Blacks
In the days before World Cup semi-finals were automatically played in super stadia, Sydney’s modest Concord Oval staged Australia’s semi-final against France. A thriller was locked at 24-24 going into the dying moments, with Michael Lynagh having missed kicks to put the game to bed, when a jaw-dropping French attack resulted in Serge Blanco diving in at the left corner for the winning try. France were ecstatic, through to the first World Cup final, but New Zealand were behemoths lying in wait and the Eden Park final was a one-sided affair, the All Blacks powering to a 29-9 victory.
1999: Rugby World Cup – Quelle horreur! France falter at the last again
Jean-Claude Skrela’s apparently formidable French swept through the group stage unscathed before dropping 47 points on Argentina and – mon dieu! – demolishing the All Blacks 43-31 in the semi-finals. France scorched back from 24-10 behind to sink the Kiwis in a Twickenham classic, inspired by the brilliant kicking of Christophe Lamaison and the gallivanting Christophe Dominici. Having edged out South Africa a day earlier, the Wallabies had considerably more left in the tank than Les Bleus when it came to the final, Rod Macqueen’s men roaring to glory as 35-12 winners on the back of 25 points from the boot of Matt Burke and tries from Ben Tune and Owen Finegan.
2003: Premiership – Twickenham agony for dominant Gloucester
Gloucester looked bankers to be crowned kings of English rugby for the first time, after a stunning 2002-03 regular season saw them finish 15 points clear of distant nearest rivals Wasps at the pinnacle of the Premiership. Nigel Melville’s side were far and away the best team over the campaign but then collapsed when it mattered most. The Cherry and Whites went straight into the final, which was the privilege at the time for the table-toppers, with Wasps and third-placed Northampton scuffling it out in a single semi-final for the right to join them. Wasps edged that game and then the side captained by Lawrence Dallaglio defied all logic by thumping Gloucester 39-3 at Twickenham to take the trophy.
2007: Premiership – Cherry and Whites off colour as Tigers pounce
Dean Ryan this time led Gloucester to the top of the Premiership table, albeit only marginally ahead of Leicester, but again there was crushing disappointment around the corner. A seven-try, 50-9 destruction of Saracens in their Kingsholm semi-final pointed to Gloucester being in great shape to gun at glory. At the very least they should have been highly competitive against Leicester in the championship match, so the 44-16 outcome in favour of the Tigers was a baffling outcome. Ryan admitted there was “mismatch…. across the field”, while the Guardian memorably described the final as being “like watching field mice fleeing a combine harvester”.
2015 Super Rugby: Hurricanes’ hopes blown away
Everything was set up for the Hurricanes. They played a supreme regular season, finishing streets ahead of the Super Rugby pack with 14 wins from 16 matches, and after bulldozing the Brumbies 29-9 in the semi-finals they had home advantage at Westpac Stadium in Wellington for the title match. Chris Boyd’s team looked nailed on, yet sport is rarely that straightforward. The Highlanders, who had never before won the competition, produced a powerful performance in the final and emerged 21-14 victors, silencing the home support who had showed up for a coronation. As Boyd said: “We were just a little off.” And that can be enough in finals, where the switched-on invariably get their reward.
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