And then there were 4.
Yes, after 3 weeks of pool games and a round of quarterfinals, we're starting to see the separation of boys and men occur right before our very eyes.
The first semi-final on Friday in Brisbane will see tournament favourites Australia take on giant-killers Fiji. After going down to the Australians at the semi-final stage in the previous two World Cups, Fiji will be hoping for a bit of third-time luck.
In the other semi-final, after knocking off Lebanon and Papua New Guinea respectively, the Tongans and the English will do battle on the hallowed turf of Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland, for the right to contest next week's final in Brisbane - likely against the omnipotent Kangaroos.
This second semi-final will be an absolute cracker! For me, either team could win it and I think it’ll go down to the wire.
After topping Group B by defeating Scotland and Samoa, as well as upsetting the world No. 2 team New Zealand, Tonga managed to best Lebanon 24-22 on Saturday afternoon in what was a very tight encounter.
In the end, they did enough to get the job done against the courageous Cedars. But Tonga coach Kristian Woolf will be disappointed with his team's 29 missed tackles and 8 errors. Both these areas will need to be improved upon if Tonga is to trouble England.
The Tongans attacked well in the first half, and as usual, their monster forward pack dominated the middle. But they fell away in the second half. This is something that they cannot afford to do against an England side that will test them for 80 minutes.
Coming off a pool stage that included wins against France and Lebanon, as well as a competitive loss to Australia, England came up against PNG in the quarterfinal, whom they managed to beat convincingly in Melbourne on Sunday afternoon.
However, their completion rate was appalling with a whopping 18 errors! This will need to be rectified urgently, as Tonga is a good enough side to make England pay for making such a massive amount of mistakes.
Jason Taumalolo is obviously Tonga’s best player. But since him having a great game is as much a given as Ben Roberts kicking the ball dead, I’d rather highlight Ata Hingano as Tonga’s key man.
If Tonga doesn’t put the English under pressure from the get-go, they won’t win. As the halfback, Hinano's decision-making will largely determine Tonga’s ability to build pressure. He’ll need to make the right decisions in the clutch moments, or else Tonga can kiss any chances of a World Cup Final berth goodbye.
For England, their key player is Gareth Widdop. He’s in the somewhat less familiar role of fullback having spent the bulk of his NRL career in the halves. But as a fullback for England, his role in the attack is very similar to the role he plays at St George Illawarra – providing that link between the players in the middle and the outside backs.
England’s attack revolves around Widdop. He had a hand in 4 of England’s 7 tries against the Kumuls last week, and he was popping up in the attack on both sides of the field.
Widdop forced the most goal-line dropouts in the NRL this year with 26. As such, look for him to exert pressure on the Tongans at every chance he gets. If he does this successfully, Tonga could be in for a tough night at the office.
Who Will Win, and Why?
I believe the outcome of this match will come down to which side can exert the most pressure. I also believe that England’s ability to do that far exceeds that of the Tongans, mostly due to who is lining up in the halves for each side.
So far in this World Cup, the yardage game of the Tongan forwards has the most vital ingredient in their victory recipe. But this English pack presents a challenge the likes of which has not yet been faced by the Tongans.
I think the Tongan forwards will dominate early while Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita and Sio Siua Taukeiaho are on the field. But they will all be off after 20-30 minutes, at which point I expect England to start wrestling back the momentum off the back of impact by Tom Burgess and Alex Walmsley, as well as some big minutes from Sam Burgess and James Graham.
Each backline is also littered with class. Ryan Hall, Jermaine McGillvary, John Bateman and Kallum Watkins are all capable of individual brilliance, as are Michael Jennings, Konrad Hurrell, David Fusitua and Daniel Tupou. Judging by those backlines, there could be plenty of length-of-the-field efforts in this game.
What happens from there is anyone’s guess. This match is very unpredictable because both sides got to the semi-final stage without playing their best football. Consequently, it’s difficult to really know what either side is capable of.
Ultimately, I think that England should scrape home in a tight one, mostly due to superiority in key positions. But at the risk of getting splinters in my bum, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see Tonga win. After all, superiority in key positions didn’t prevent England from making 18 errors against PNG. If England gives away that much ball this weekend I think Tonga could really punish them.
I predict that England will win by 30-26 in a high-scoring, end-to-end affair. This prediction comes without a shred of confidence. But the one thing that I am sure of is that this will be one hell of a game.