The Rugby World Cup group stage is over and it’s all been rather anticlimactic so far. England’s all too predictable demise has dominated the headlines, with the shock of Japan’s last gasp victory over South Africa extinguished by their failure to qualify – the first team to win three matches in the group and still not make it through to the knockout stages. And so, after just over a month of gripping rugby, upsets and fantastic displays of individual skill, we have ended up with four quarter finals which anyone in their right mind could’ve predicted before the tournament began. Even so, injuries and inconsistent form have made these four matches more intriguing than first thought.
South Africa vs Wales – Sat 17 Oct 16:00 (Twickenham)
Probably the least predictable match of the weekend, with both sides extremely consistent in what they do and unlikely to stray too far from their comfort zones.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 15, 2015
Japan appear to have awoken the beast with their first week victory against the Springboks. Since then, they have been untameable and no one else in the group came close to troubling them. Their forwards, driven on by young locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, have overpowered all in front of them, making particularly good use of the driving maul, and have expertly dominated the breakdown area. In the backs, the new look centre partnership of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel has begun to bond, creating chances for their experienced wingers in Brian Habana and JP Pietersen. If the forwards can dictate play and the backs can link effectively, there is very little their opponents can do to stop them.
Wales, beset by injuries to their backs, have named an inexperienced side, including centre Tyler Morgan, who has been capped just twice before. They will most likely try to use the pace of their wingers, George North and Alex Cuthbert, to stretch a narrow South Africa side, whose wingers are ageing. Dan Biggar’s kicking could prove pivotal in this game, just as in the thriller against England, and if he can keep the Springboks on the back foot and pinned inside their own half, Wales can negate the immense threat posed by their forwards and seal an improbable victory.
Prediction: South Africa to win by around 5 points
New Zealand vs France – Sat 17 Oct 20:00 (Millennium Stadium)
Despite 7 wins between them in the group stage, neither side has been overly convincing in stating their case for a place in the final. New Zealand, whilst never looking particularly troubled by a straight-forward group, have not been the overwhelming force they once used to be, particularly in the forwards. They have conceded a staggering 20 turnovers per match and their pack has not dominated any of their opponents’ and there appears to be a sense among the other nations that this team very much beatable. One area in which the All Blacks do excel, however, is in the backs. Wingers Julien Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder have scored nine tries between them in just four matches and their centres have shown outstanding strength in depth. The ever-presents of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have been backed up ably by Sonny Bill Williams and Malakai Fekitoa, all of whom provide something different to the New Zealand attack. Williams’ offloading ability in particular could prove crucial if the All Blacks Plan A isn’t working.
— Telegraph Rugby (@TelegraphRugby) October 16, 2015
The French are significant underdogs in this contest, but are nothing if not unpredictable. They have twice knocked the All Blacks out in the latter stages of the World Cup and pushed them all the way in the final in 2011 and there is nothing to say that they can’t put in a similar performance on Saturday. Thierry Dusautoir and his fellow back-rowers will be thrilled by their opponents’ struggles in the rucks and will look to use this as a platform to set up their attacks. Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareud, whilst they haven’t shone so far this tournament, can be as potent as any centre pairing on their day and Noa Nakaitaci looks dangerous on the wing. Whether they will have enough to take down the world’s no. 1 team remains to be seen
Prediction: New Zealand by around 10 points
Ireland vs Argentina – Sun 18 Oct 13:00 (Millennium Stadium)
Ireland have supposedly got the quarter final that everyone wanted, but Argentina are no-pushovers and this could be a closer contest than many think.
Ireland have been solid and consistent so far this tournament without ever really shining. Their win over France was encouraging from a defensive point of view, but it is the match against Italy which will cause most concern, particularly from an attacking point of view, scoring just one try against the whipping boys of the Six Nations. Furthermore, Ireland will be without 3 of their most important players for this match. Captain Paul O’Connell and flanker Peter O’Mahony have been ruled out for the rest of the tournament with injuries and influential no. 7 Sean O’Brien is suspended after striking French lock Pascal Papé. Fly-half Jonny Sexton is also a doubt with a groin issue, with the coaches prepared to risk him to seal a positive result.
— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) October 15, 2015
Argentina are very much the dark horses at this stage, still a relatively unknown quantity to even the most educated of rugby fans. Wingers Juan Imhoff and Santiago Cordero have stood out, scoring three tries each, alongside fly-half and kicker Nicolas Sanchez, who has scored 51 points already this tournament. They will also target Ireland’s weakened pack, where Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Leonardo Senatore will be looking to turn Ireland over as much as possible. Whilst Argentina have only an outside chance of success in this match, if they can continue their current form, we could be in for a shock
Prediction: Ireland by fewer than 5 points
Scotland vs Australia – Sun 18 Oct 16:00 (Twickenham)
Many people have given Scotland no chance of success in their attempt to reach a first World Cup semi-final since 1991 and it’s not hard to see why.
Scotland’s squad is becoming gradually depleted after bans to Jonny Gray and Ross Ford, which will rule both players out of the rest of the World Cup, to add to the injury to first-choice lock Grant Gilchrist. These bans have come at exactly the wrong time for Scotland, as, despite the competence of likely stand-ins Tim Swinson and Fraser Brown, it is widely acknowledged that they will need to be at full strength to have any chance of overcoming an in-form Australian team. There are, however, positives which could see this game swing their way. Captain Greig Laidlaw is currently the World Cup’s top scorer with an impressive 60 points and has been instrumental in leading his team this far in the competition, scoring the crucial final try against Samoa which sealed their qualification. But it will be their main attacking axis of Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg who could prove pivotal if they are to stand a chance. If any of those three can break Australia’s defensive line, Scotland should be clinical enough to finish off their chances.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) October 16, 2015
Australia, however, could now be considered favourites for the tournament after coming through the so-called “Group of Death” unscathed. Bernard Foley has orchestrated a free-flowing, attacking team, full of match winners, linking play well with the centres and outside backs. The world-class back row partnership of David Pocock and Michael Hooper will be reunited against Scotland to strike further trepidation into the hearts of the Scots who still believe in their chances of victory. Moreover, if Israel Folau can recover from an ankle injury in time to start on Sunday, it’s hard to see anything but a comfortable Australian victory, although the Scots will fight to the last whistle.
Prediction: Australia by 10-15 points