It’s quarterfinal time in the 2011 Rugby World Cup and we have been served up a four-course feast well worth salivating over.
Ireland and Wales kick-off the knockout stage on Saturday night in Wellington, followed by England versus France in Auckland. On Sunday, the big three will be out in force starting with South Africa and Australia (Wellington) and New Zealand and Argentina (Auckland).
Ireland vs. Wales
Ireland has gone from strength to strength after a less than scintillating start against the American’s, 22-10 in New Plymouth. They are now full of confidence following a 36-6 thumping of the Azzurri last weekend, at the same time forcing Australia into the tougher side of the tournament.
The Welsh started their tournament off by almost defeating the Springboks only to go down to them by one point and similar to the men in green, Wales capped off their pool matches with a 66-0 demolition of Fiji.
The last time they met Wales won a determined six nations clash, 19-13. After trailing at half-time Mike Philips broke away to score from a sneaky line-out play that had the Irish fuming, a move that I am sure will remain in their minds when the two nations take to the field.
This is set to be a top-notch game as both have good form and go into this match with their confidence up. Wales are playing a good brand of rugby as are Ireland, who has proven to be strong in defense. Warren Gatland said that “you wouldn’t expect anything else than a really tough game” and I agree, both sides know each other very well and we should see a tight tussle in the weekend’s opener.
Prediction: Ireland for me by a mere three points.
England vs. France
If I can put it this way, the worst of the quarterfinals by far, but still should be an entertaining match. England scrambled their way to a win against Scotland but just don’t seem to be playing compelling rugby.
Martin Johnson’s men have and will need to base their game around defense by putting their hand around their opponent’s throat to squeeze a victory out, something they have done in this world cup.
The frogs haven’t seemed coherent in the 2011 world cup. They go into this battle after suffering two losses, firstly against the hosts (17-37) and an upset defeat to Tonga (14-19). The magic and skills we generally see just hasn’t been there.
In the English camp, a big call needs to be made with Johnny Wilkinson by Johnson and the selectors. England must have Toby Flood in the starting line-up to get the teams engines going early – does this sound familiar? Perhaps you may recall New Zealand making a tough call with Mils Muliaina. How far does loyalty go?
Last time they met England beat the defending six nations champions 17-9 in a game where Tom Palmer and Flood were instrumental. France came back hard after England dominated early in the match, but a Ben Foden try stopped their run.
Continuing on, England have the upper hand when these two sides have come face to face in the RWC having won four of the last five encounters.
Johnson was quoted as saying that the French are most dangerous when “flying under the radar” like they have been doing so far. French openside-flanker Imanol Harinordoquy backed up Johnson’s remarks by mentioning that “every player has been at 50 per cent of their potential up until now”.
England has lost firepower from the outside due to the banning of Delon Armitage for a high tackle on Scotland’s Chris Paterson.
Prediction: The French to reverse their six nations clash with England and move into the semi finals against Ireland.
South Africa vs. Australia
The match of the weekend, a true battle of the heavyweights, and a true test match in every sense of a quarterfinal.
The Boks are in form and playing some fantastic rugby. After a close encounter with Wales in a 17-16 victory, they then easily brushed aside Fiji (49-3), an 87-0 drubbing of Namibia, and wrapped their pool games up with a 13-5 win over Samoa.
In pool C, Australia finished ranked second after losing to Ireland in their first match. The Wallabies wins were over Italy, USA and Russia.
This is going to be a great game. Australia is dangerous and we don’t exactly know what we’re going to get from them.
South Africa goes into the game on the back of a very tough match against Samoa, and that could be key to this clash. Which team will be better prepared? Australia’s hard game was their loss to the Irish – their first game of the tournament. Since then, they have had three easier games.
Akin to the Ireland versus Wales battle, the Boks and Wallabies know each other very well, and that is that these two powerhouses of world rugby couldn’t be further apart in playing styles.
South Africa will employ the high up and unders and force Australia to run the ball, then try to force mistakes. Further, the Boks are certain to look to their scrum and line-out, in addition to the maul, to smash and tire a weak Wallabies pack. Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale must fire for the Wallabies and thoroughly test out how good the South African defensive system is.
Australia get Digby Loane back for the match which is set to be played in a wet Wellington Sunday night.
Last time they met Australia defeated South Africa 14-9 in Durban after two late James O’Connor penalty conversions put the visitors in the lead and eventually gave them the win.
Prediction: I am tipping the outsiders (Sportingbet odds), South Africa, to set up a mouth-watering semi final against the All-Blacks.
New Zealand vs. Argentina
The hosts should win despite the loss of Dan Carter who ruptured his groin whilst practicing his kicking on the eve of their final pool match against Canada.
The 29 year-old said that “after kicking a ball it just popped and I went down on the ground in agony”. According to the playmaker, he only intended to have four practice kicks, and the injury came on that final one.
Aaron Cruden has been called into the squad to replace the injured Carter. On a positive note, captain Richie McCaw returns after sitting out with a footy injury in New Zealand’s 79-15 win over the Canadian’s.
Argentina haven’t captured the imagination like they did four years ago and on the weekend against Georgia, they looked labored.
The Puma’s have their main man, Felipe Contepomi, suffering with an injury (ribs) and overall, they just don’t seem to be firing on all cylinders and relying on a bit of X-factor here and there.
Last time they met, in 2006, the All-Blacks won 25-19 in Buenos Aires.
Prediction: New Zealand in a comfortable quarterfinal.
It is expected to be a great weekend of the highest class of rugby and fans should be very, very excited, no matter which nation you reside.
Following Cameron on Twitter @innersanctum and www.innersanctumsports.com.