What a weekend of rugby it was. Eight teams whittled down to four in the most dramatic circumstances – and, in Saint-Denis alone, two of the most astonishing games of international rugby anyone is likely to see.
Both those matches, between Ireland and New Zealand, and France and South Africa, would have been worthy of a final. As it was, they set a challengingly high bar for the remaining four games of Rugby World Cup 2023.
On Friday, Argentina will play New Zealand in the first semi-final at Stade de France, 24 hours before England take on defending champions South Africa at the same venue.
This is how the final four got there…
Wales v Argentina
Veteran fly-half Nicolás Sánchez intercepted Sam Costelow’s pass three minutes from time in Marseille and skirted under the posts for the try that sent Argentina into the last four at the expense of Wales.
Emiliano Boffelli converted, and Sánchez – who came on in the 69th minute - slotted a red-clock penalty to take the final score to 29-17 in Los Pumas’ favour.
Argentina had come from behind twice. Dan Biggar scored the game’s first try, as Wales darted into a 10-0 lead in the opening 20 minutes. Two Boffelli penalties late in the first half pulled his side back into contention, and another two early in the second period took them into the lead.
Scrum-half Tomos Williams then darted over to hand the advantage back to Wales. But Joel Sclavi dived over from close range 10 minutes from time to take back the lead, before Sánchez – in his 102nd test and eight years after his 23 points against Ireland had sent Los Pumas into the semi-finals at RWC 2015 – settled the issue.
Ireland v New Zealand
Another grizzled man of rugby – All Blacks’ lock Sam Whitelock, in his 151st test – won the penalty with the clock in the red that claimed the second semi-final spot for New Zealand, after they defended an all-time Rugby World Cup record 37 phases of unrelenting Irish pressure at the end of a match that was exhaustingly enthralling from kick off to final whistle.
The All Blacks won 28-24, having seen a 13-0 first-quarter lead reduced to 18-17 by half-time – and despite spending 20 minutes at a numerical disadvantage.
Leicester Fainga’anuku scored the first try as the All Blacks’ built an early lead, before centre Bundee Aki danced his way over for Ireland. Mastercard Player of the Match Ardie Savea splashed over in the corner; then Jamison Gibson-Park scored just before half-time as Ireland jabbed back, with Aaron Smith in the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on.
Will Jordan bagged his fifth try of the tournament – a score that would have had Ireland’s defence coach raging – before a penalty try brought Ireland back to within a point.
But centre Jordie Barrett’s penalty with just over 10 minutes left meant Ireland needed a try to end their quarter-final hoodoo at the eighth time of asking.
They got close, twice. Two minutes after slotting his kick, Barrett held up Rónan Kelleher over the line, and then All Blacks’ discipline saw them to the end of those 37 suffocating phases without conceding a penalty.
England v Fiji
There were more than a few echoes of Fiji’s Rugby World Cup 2007 quarter-final appearance in Marseille on Sunday afternoon.
Sixteen years ago, Fiji came back from 13-3 down at half-time in the same town, at the same stage, against South Africa to level the scores at 20-20 on the hour, before that year’s eventual world champions pulled away to win 27-20.
Against England, they came back from 21-10 behind at the break to deservedly level the scores at 24-24 on 70 minutes, courtesy of tries from Peni Ravai and Vilimoni Botitu.
But England fly-half and captain Owen Farrell, who ended up with 20 points, settled things for the 2003 champions, kicking a drop goal to regain the lead before slotting a late penalty to secure a 30-24 win.
France v South Africa
The Saint-Denis based quarter-finals saved the best until last. If Ireland-New Zealand was epic – and it was – France-South Africa was titanic. Six tries inside the first 30 minutes set the tone, as the defending champions came from behind twice to overcome France in a pulsating encounter.
Les Bleus had their chances on Sunday night in a passionate Stade de France. They had one try, for prop Cyril Baille, and could arguably have had another before Kurt-Lee Arendse got the Springboks on the scoreboard in the eighth minute.
Thomas Ramos had a difficult conversion attempt charged down by Cheslin Kolbe – who touched down himself soon after – following livewire hooker Peato Mauvaka’s 22nd-minute score. Baille then scored his second, and Ramos landed a penalty to give France a 22-19 half-time lead. He notched another in the 54th minute to extend the host nation’s lead.
But Eben Etzebeth stretched over with 14 minutes left, Handre Pollard converting and adding a penalty which proved decisive, despite a late reply from Ramos that took the score to 28-29.