Get ready for the "gritty" England semi-final

Get ready for the “gritty” England semi-final

Venue: Emirates Stadium, London Date: Saturday, November 12 Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Reporting: Watch live on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and online; Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra; Live text and highlights on the BBC Sport website and app

Get ready for a stomach-churning, nerve-wracking Saturday afternoon.

Whether you support England or Samoa, their World Cup semi-final at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium will be one heck of a game.

And one thing is certain – this time it won’t be 60-6 as when England beat Samoa in the opening match of the World Cup.

Semifinals can be the most tense, most dramatic and most heartbreaking games of a tournament.

England’s last two World Cup semi-finals have been proof of that; almost unbearable emotional roller coasters.

At Wembley in 2013 we saw Sam Burgess at his best, Dean Whare’s wonder pass for a Roger Tuivasa-Sheck try and then, at the end of a pulsating game with England desperately trying to hold out against New Zealand, Shaun Johnson’s dazzling step and dash to the line with seconds left broke the hearts of the home crowd.

Despair for Sean O’Loughlin after England’s 2013 World Cup semi-final defeat by New Zealand, and joy for Chris Hill after the 2017 semi-final win over Tonga

Four years later in Auckland, in front of a full house of roaring Tonga fans, it was just as tense.

England looked comfortable winners, until Tonga produced a stunning and incredible fightback in the late stages. A controversial call on Tonga’s Andrew Fifita in the closing moments was the difference between glory and despair.

We could see something similar this weekend.

England favorites against improving Samoa

England’s stunning victory over Samoa just four weeks ago, and their impressive form since then, has made them the headline act of this World Cup so far.

But as the final approaches, the obstacles become higher. It will be a completely different Samoa side they face, in terms of mentality and preparedness.

England are favourites, no doubt. Expectations for them to reach the final are rightly sky high.

But Samoa has grown and strengthened, and we can return to the lines we used before the tournament started. They are a team of extraordinary talent, many of whom pass the test of quality every week in the NRL.

A clinical and eye-catching victory over France in the group stage showed their squad moving into gear.

Their hard fought and tense quarter-final victory against Tonga proving that they now also have a robust, battle-hardened ability to get the job done when the going gets tough.

Teenage full-back Joseph Sua’ali’i was electrifying at times in that quarter-final – a stark contrast to his mistakes on the opening day against England. Winger Brian To’o has made more meters than any other player in this World Cup.

And up front, props to Junior Paulo – now ready to play having successfully appealed his one-match ban – and Josh Papalii are fantastically violent and powerful operators.

England fans have every right to be nervous, but equally they can be optimistic.

The fight ahead will be decisive

Both sides have the talented backs to make the most of momentum and space, but the right to run is earned by the big men in the middle and England have some of the best.

Tom Burgess and Chris Hill are in the destructive form of their lives. When it comes to picking the team in the men’s tournament, they will both be right in the fray.

Loose forward Victor Radley has been superb, a five-star inclusion in his first England campaign. And on Whore, Michael McIlorum is as tough as they come.

What we also know for sure is that, under Shaun Wane’s leadership, this is a pack that will bring raw energy and a front-foot attitude to every game they play.

On the back of any wins in the middle, this England team has shown it has world-class backs who can take advantage and convert position into points.

It may depend on who holds their nerve best.

The men’s tournament has thrown up more than its share of one-sided matches, and it will be something for the International Rugby League to scrutinize before setting the format for the next World Cup in France in 2025.

But in the end, it will be best remembered for its greatest moments and occasions. England v Samoa in the semi-final could very well be one of them.

Wheelchair games allow for expansion

This World Cup will also be remembered for introducing the great sport of wheelchair rugby league to a wider audience of fans.

It’s a version of the sport that offers a real platform for growth and expansion.

As you now know, it is undoubtedly a joy to watch. The wheelchair game has all the power, and more, that the runner game offers. It also has a level of subtlety and skill not necessarily expected by the unfamiliar viewer.

The close body swing and handling reminds me a lot of the running game I grew up watching. Back then, the defensive retreat on play-the-ball was only five yards, not 10 in the modern game. In that game, skill and subtle ball handling at close range were as important as power and size. That’s what we have in wheelchair rugby league.

It offers a real chance for expansion and growth for rugby league. In the United States, for example, where the men’s and women’s running game has struggled to gain traction, the wheelchair game has immediately appealed to a group of adaptive athletes who love it.

In their first World Cup, the USA has competed with the established rugby leagues with an almost entirely home-grown squad. Spain is a similar example. There will be much more to come from both of them.

Impact and collision are what draw many fans to rugby, both league and union, but the running game is under pressure to reduce that impact due to the growing awareness of brain injuries and their effects.

Wheelchair rugby league can maintain that impact without the same degree of concern, as overhead strikes are not part of that game. So it can hold the crash, the bang, the gruel and the subtle skills and speed that make it an irresistible watch.

If TV bosses aren’t lining up in an attempt to make this version of rugby league a mainstream sport in the future, I’d be surprised.

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