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Preview: 2012 IRB JWC semi-finals

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James Mortimer     17 Jun 2012     Getty Images

Each semi final brings together teams who are familiar with each other, Wales having become the first side to ever beat New Zealand on the JWC stage in the pool stages and South Africa and Argentina having played a three-match series in April.

Wales and Argentina have both thrived on the underdogs tag at JWC 2012, beating three sides considered genuine title contenders between them, Los Pumitas upsetting both France and Australia with their intense passion and determination to succeed.

South Africa’s bid for a first JWC title could have crumbled after they suffered a shock opening loss to Ireland, but they blitzed England with the vital four second-half tries they needed on Tuesday to finish top of Pool B.

That left New Zealand to, for the first time, scrape into the semi finals as the best runner up, although only after scoring four second half tries themselves to see of the challenge of a plucky Fijian outfit and pip France with a far superior point differential.

New Zealand have been hurting since that loss to Wales and have been working hard the last few days to try and put right the mistakes and, at times, poor decision making which has made a Baby Blacks side look vulnerable for the first time in five tournaments.

Ten members of the side beaten 9-6 by Wales in the mud and rain at Danie Craven Stadium in round two will start the first semi final at 17:00 local time, while Milford Keresoma and Jason Emery – so impressive in round one – will get their shot at Wales.

“Wales played very, very well that day, they were a bit better than us tactically but hopefully we’ve got those areas sorted,” admitted co-captain Bryn Hall, one of those players given a second shot at Wales by coach Rob Penney.

“We’ve been working on it the past three or four days and our catch-pass accuracy because unfortunately if we don’t do that we’re going to be knocked out and we definitely don’t want that.

“We didn’t do what we wanted (against Wales), but we’ve got a second chance to play well. The boys are very, very up for it, we want to make things right that we didn’t last time.

“I guess it’s kind of seen as revenge but for us we just need to get our game plan set and that pass-catch execution and if we get the small things right then hopefully our game plan will move on from there.”

Emery, who scored two late tries against Fiji to secure the semi final place, insists that the mood has been “great” in the New Zealand camp in the build up to this rematch with Wales.

Wales want to beat the best again

“I think the fear of losing has picked the boys up,” added Emery, who admits he has watched all of the four Baby Blacks’ final victories and has “always said I wanted to be there one day”.

“We’ve set high standards this week, we know we let it slip a bit throughout the tournament so this is the time when everyone has got to step up and do their part, not only on the field but off the field as well.”

Wales coach Danny Wilson has named the same line-up that ended New Zealand’s 21-match winning run at this level and just one change from the 74-3 win over Samoa last time out, 17-year-old Jack Dixon returning at inside centre.

Tom Prydie kicked two second half penalties to secure the Baby Blacks’ scalp and still finds it hard to put into words what that victory meant, although he’s keen to repeat the feat and secure Wales a first ever JWC final appearance.

“The boys have been training really well and we are all looking forward to it,” explained Prydie, who already has four senior Wales caps to his name. “We obviously want to make it all the way to the final and to do that you have to beat the best teams and they don’t come much bigger than New Zealand.

“It would be massive for us if we made the final – none of us have ever been in a World Cup final before and I’m not sure if any of us will ever again be in this position, so it’s a huge opportunity for us as players as well as for Wales.

“The New Zealand result was huge – even now I can't really put it into words. The history they have got, not just at this level but at Sevens and international level. No-one has ever beaten them before in this tournament so it was massive for us but we have to do it all over again this weekend now for it to mean even more.

“Personally, another win would be right up there alongside earning my first senior Welsh cap and scoring my first try for Wales. It’s been a different experience playing with the Under 20s but it’s been an experience I’ve really enjoyed and it’s given me a lot of confidence. Hopefully we can beat New Zealand again and get a place in the final.”

While Wales have reached the semi finals once before, back in the inaugural tournament on home soil with a side featuring Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies among others, the other ‘underdogs’ Argentina are creating their own piece of history.

Argentina may have not been regarded as a title contender before JWC 2012 kicked off in South Africa, but within the closely knit squad their intention was always to return home with the distinctive trophy in their luggage.

“We came here to achieve the objectives we had set,” explained Felipe Ezcurra, who scored two tries against Scotland last time out to guarantee Argentina their best ever finish, having previously finished no higher than sixth.

“Our objective is to be champions, but we are very calm. What this squad has is that we set our objectives a long way back and have worked on it very hard. We are a close group of friends, we’re like a family, and I think this is what has taken us so far.

“The final is what we want, it’s our objective, it’s what we have been dreaming of for a long time now and it would be wonderful to achieve it.”

The passion of Los Pumitas has been a key factor in their success so far, their determination to work together and not let anyone down, their refusal to let teams break through their resolute defence.

“Passion is a theme that unifies rugby,” continued Ezcurra. “All the teams are very passionate, especially Argentina, we feel very proud of being Argentineans, but I guess South Africa must feel the same.

Passion key for both sides

“I don’t think being at home makes a massive difference, it’s a world championship for everyone. During this tournament we learned that anything is possible and no teams are unbeaten, so we’re not nervous.”

South Africa had won the series 2-0 with Los Pumitas back in April, winning the first convincingly 51-19 and then edging a tight battle 13-5, and captain William Small-Smith is expecting another tough encounter when the sides meet at Newlands.

“It gives us a bit of preparation because we know how they play and they also know how we play. It gives us an advantage but it also gives them an advantage,” admitted Small-Smith, who scored the try that began South Africa’s four-try burst against England.

“It’s going to be a good test, and we know they’re very physical and they’re going to bring it to us, especially in the forwards. We will just have to man up and dominate them. We don’t have to score four tries, you just have to win the game.”

Flanker Pieter Steph du Toit, another try scorer against England, echoes this sentiment but believes that the opportunity to play at Newlands will inspire South Africa and raise their passion to new levels.

“I think our passion will overwhelm them. It’s on Newlands so the crowd will definitely get behind us. It’s a great honour to play at Newlands, since I was a boy it’s always been a dream.

“I know it will be a great honour for everyone, so I think our passion will be much higher than theirs at this moment. You can see the Argentineans are very passionate because they are close to crying when they sing their national anthem.”