Business picks up as the elite eight battle it out in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
And then there were eight.
The best remain on course in France while the rest have gone home following the conclusion of the pool stage last weekend. Four fascinating contests are in store, two of which will be played in Marseille and two in Saint-Denis.
Stade de France in Saint-Denis will stage two blockbusters with the world’s number-one-ranked side Ireland taking on three-time winners New Zealand on Saturday and defending champions South Africa facing hosts France on Sunday.
The matches at Stade de Marseille will see Pool C winners Wales tackle Argentina on Saturday and Pool D winners England play Fiji, who are set to feature in the World Cup playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Wales v Argentina
Saturday, 14 October – 17:00
Wales were the first team to qualify for the quarter-finals and are also in position to be the first to reach the final four.
Unbeaten table-toppers in Pool C, Wales responded well to the big scare Fiji gave them first up and have been untroubled since. Their record 40-6 rout of Australia was a showcase of their skill and solid set pieces, both of which will trouble Argentina.
The Pumas are yet to hit their straps but they’re a quality side. The nature of their 27-10 loss to England in their opening match made it tough to move on from but coming through last Sunday’s hard-fought, make-or-break clash with Japan was ideal preparation for the playoffs.
While the Dragons are capable with the ball, it’s their defence that’s been the real hallmark of their game with only the Brave Blossoms having made more tackles than them. With that in mind, along with Argentina’s erratic nature, I can’t see the Pumas pulling off an upset.
Ireland v New Zealand
Saturday, 14 October – 21:00
Ireland deservedly enter this encounter of epic proportions as the favourites having proven themselves as the best team in the world over the course of their current 17-match winning streak. New Zealand, on the other hand, aren’t the juggernaut of old but make no mistake, they can beat anyone on any given day.
All Blacks fans demand greatness, so they’ll be feeling the heat, but there’s more pressure on Ireland. No Irish team have ever gotten out of the quarter-finals of a World Cup and that curse will sit in the back of Johnny Sexton and company’s minds.
The Irish have been imperious, topping Pool B in ferociously flawless fashion. Their 13-8 win over the Springboks showed they have the class to go all the way and their 36-14 thrashing of Scotland last Saturday spoke to their pursuit of perfection and obsession to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup.
One could say the All Blacks have done a good job bouncing back from their historic 27-13 loss to France in the tournament opener, but then one looks at the level of competition they faced since then, Namibia (71-3), Italy (96-17) and Uruguay (73-0), and you get the sense they may well be undercooked.
The Harlem Globetrotter rugby they’ve played in recent weeks won’t get them anywhere against ultra-efficient Ireland. I’m not suggesting they’ll throw the ball around willy-nilly, but it’s difficult to match a clinical side like the Irish in a chess match if you’ve been playing checkers leading up to it.
Ireland have the more cohesive, combative pack and are unrivalled at the breakdown, which should allow them to dictate terms and knock the All Blacks out of the tournament.
England v Fiji
Sunday, 15 October – 17:00
Pool D winners England haven’t set France on fire, but at the same time, they’ve done what was needed of them every time out to advance to the quarters.
Tom Curry’s early red card in their crunch opening clash against Argentina turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened to them as it galvanised them and led to a campaign-building 27-10 triumph, which they followed up with a comfortable 34-12 win in their other big game against Japan.
Having already qualified following their 71-0 whitewash of Chile, they were perhaps a bit guilty of looking past Samoa and it almost cost them as they scraped home 18-17 last Saturday.
Fiji’s fairy-tale campaign almost came crashing down with their shock 24-23 loss to Portugal last Sunday, but the losing bonus point was enough to see them send the Wallabies home thanks to their famous 22-15 win over the men from Down Under.
After a 16-year wait to return to the quarter-finals, Fiji will give it their all, but England will be well prepared having come through a similar stylistic challenge and will have too much class for the Pacific Islanders.
France v South Africa
Sunday, 15 October – 21:00
Saving the best for last, the battle between the Springboks and the hosts is an absolute blockbuster. Both teams are well-coached, structured sides and the winners, in my mind, will make it all the way to the final. So, who will it be?
Pool A winners France have been phenomenal, their tournament-opening 27-13 triumph over the All Blacks serving as a statement of intent as well as the key case study for the Bok brains trust in preparation for Sunday’s titanic tussle.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber would’ve noticed Les Bleus’ intelligent kicking game, patience, physicality, discipline and ability to convert opportunities into points.
It also showed how the partisan crowd acts like the 16th man and emphatically answered how Fabian Galthie’s men can cope with the pressures and expectations of a home World Cup.
The Boks, in turn, have been strong and would’ve had an unbeaten run into the last-eight as well had they slotted all their kicks at goal in the Pool B decider against Ireland. Their strength remains their feared forward pack, where they have a slight edge over France, and in their unrivalled bench.
It’s the Bomb Squad element that sets South Africa apart from any other team. The relentless brutality it ensures, coupled with their rugby IQ, tactical prowess and experience make them value underdogs, a tag they thrive wearing.
They have the pedigree, the brains and the muscle to get it done and barring a controversial refereeing/TMO decision, I see the Boks edging a humdinger.