The pool matches of a Rugby World Cup that showed a marked improvement in the state of rugby among the smaller nations are now over. The eight quarterfinalists through to the knockout stages are hardly surprising, given they are the Top 8 teams in the world. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS previews quarterfinal weekend at the RWC with some predictions.
England versus France
The first match of the playoff stages kicks off when an uninspired English team takes on a French team that became only the second in history to qualify following two pool losses. France’s rugby team are often described as “mercurial” and “enigmatic” – which only serve as mere euphemisms for “inconsistent”.
While never having achieved the heights of their football-playing cousins, who won the Fifa World Cup back in 1998, they have certainly done their level best to try to equal the football team’s abysmal performance at the last World Cup, where they failed to qualify for the playoff rounds. Their campaign has been marred by in-fighting and sub-standard rugby, by their own standards. Starting eighthman and seasoned veteran Imanol Harinordoquy has gone so far as to openly criticise coach Marc Lievremont and the role he had to play in their shock 19-14 defeat by Tonga in their final pool game.
Normally, one would expect the French to go from merde to worse, but on Saturday they face an old foe, that could see them put in a performance worthy of the pre-tournament dark horse talk that considered France as a team that could contest the final.
England, by contrast are through to this stage having remained unbeaten, albeit with two come-from-behind victories in a pool characterised by mediocre rugby. Without playing eye-candy rugby, England have once again managed to stumble their way into the business end of the tournament. Injuries have decided their flyhalf conundrum, as stand-in captain Mike Tindall will not start which sees Toby Flood wearing the number 12 jersey, outside 2003 hero, Jonny Wilkinson.
As a team that has taken “knowing how to win ugly” to new levels, it remains difficult to assess the true calibre of this English team, given the pedestrian quality of their major pool opponents Argentina and Scotland.
However, these two sides have met many times before, resulting in some classic encounters. We’re expecting the standard of rugby to improve, though only slightly, without the familiarity of Twickenham or Stade Francais to inspire either side. In what could prove to be a dour affair, we’re backing the English to send the Tricolours home to ponder their failed campaign in shame.
Ireland versus Wales
Wales take on Ireland in the other all-northern hemisphere clash, which pundits believe will determine the finalist from this side of the draw. Ireland have brushed off the worst possible build-up to the tournament to upset Australia in the pool C decider, and canter into the quarterfinals unbeaten. The Irish pack made mincemeat of a frail Australian scrum to set-up the victory that had their army of green fans drinking New Zealand’s stock of Guinness dry. The imposing manner in which they dismantled Italy has people whispering about the chances Brian O’Driscoll’s men have of lifting the trophy.
Ireland will again look to their forwards to lay the foundation for victory, but we think they will come unstuck against a mightily impressive Welsh team that was desperately unlucky to be on the wrong side of a close encounter with the Springboks.
Wales have looked a fit and exciting outfit that for the first World Cup campaign ever, seem to have a squad of 22 players of the necessary quality to reach the final. Fledgling skipper, Sam Warburton, has been a revelation in the tournament leading his loose forward charges to capitalise on the great work done by the big men up front. Their backline led by the attacking Jamie Roberts have cut many defences to shreds, including the Bok backline that was fortunate not to have conceded more points against the Red Dragons.
Wales, for our money, have played tougher opposition than the Irish who contended with a depleted Australian side and the perennial Six Nation underachievers, Italy. Their encounters against the Springboks and the Samoans will provide the Welsh with a slight advantage in what is sure to rival the Australia v South Africa match for the headline show of the weekend. In a tightly contested encounter, we’re backing Wales to go all the way and reach the final.
Australia versus South Africa
For the southern hemisphere, the matchup between South Africa and Australia has been a talking point since the Irish upset the Wallabies in their Pool C decider on 17 September. An under-strength Wallaby side missing some key players like David Pocock and Stephen Moore, were put to the sword by an inspired and pumped up Irish team.
Like the northern hemisphere battles, this encounter sees two familiar opponents take each other on in what promises to be the headline act of the weekend. Both sides have had their share of injury blows to big name players and the Boks will miss the prodigious boot and midfield presence of Francois Steyn.
Many Bok fans would have been cursing the Irish victory, once they realised that Australia would be contesting for a semi-final berth against the South Africans. But we reckon it’s the Aussie fans that should be lamenting the loss more than the green-and-gold army, as they face up against a much-improved side from that which was twice beaten in this year’s Tri-Nations.
The Boks have been miserly in defence, only conceding two tries on their way to topping Pool D, the aptly dubbed “Pool of Death”, which proved to be the toughest group by a long margin. In a match that is likely to conjure up references to the different playing styles and strengths of the teams: backs against forwards, flair versus attrition. In our view, forwards win the big World Cup matches and backs determine by how much, so we’re opting for a superior Bok pack to win the day and setup what is likely to be the real final of the tournament, against New Zealand.
Argentina versus New Zealand
Argentina have been brave in advancing to another quarterfinal, but in reality they've failed to capture the imagination of their 2007 campaign that saw them reach the semi-finals in France. Argentina don’t look to have anywhere near the firepower to cause what would become the biggest upset in the history of the World Cup.
Even an All Blacks team sans Dan Carter will be too good for the Pumas, as they get a taste of what lies ahead in the expanded Tri-Nations. We expect the Pumas to put up a decent fight, but New Zealand will emerge as comfortable victors, hoping no further injuries befall any of their key players.
Predictions are too often, a mug’s game, with the formbook often thrown back in the face of the speculator. Something we've seen a few times already at this world cup. As a great weekend of rugby awaits, here’s hoping we get the really big one right – that’s the Bok over the Wallabies.
The quarterfinal line-up (CAT):
Saturday 08/10 - 07:00 Ireland - Wales Wellington
08/10 - 09:30 England - France Auckland
Sunday 09/10 - 07:00 Australia - South Africa Wellington
09/10 - 09:30 Argentina - New Zealand Auckland