Finally, it’s time. Eight out of 20 participating nations have made it to the quarterfinals of the Eighth Rugby World Cup. In a way, it’s once again the Northern Hemisphere v/s The Southern Hemisphere. Every World Cup except 2003 (where England won) has been lifted by a team from the Southern Hemisphere – split between New Zealand’s All Blacks, South Africa’s Springboks and Australia’s Wallabies. This time too, the usual suspects – except England – have made it to the knockouts. This is the phase every fan has been waiting for after a sensational group phase in which perhaps the greatest World Cup upset ever occurred in one of the first games: Japan defeated South Africa 34-32 in the first Pool B encounter, thereby setting the group up for a photo finish. The Boks cleaned up their act, winning the next 3 games, including an American walloping 64-0. Perhaps it was the wake up call they needed, and Scotland’s sensational 45-10 victory against Japan proved to be the difference, as the Asians crashed out despite winning 3 out of their 4 games like Scotland and the Boks.
1. New Zealand v/s France
Millennium Stadium, October 17th 8 PM
Eight years ago, in this very stadium, all of New Zealand will never forget what transpired on that Saturday night. 20-18, the final score of a pulsating encounter, in which the French rode their luck to secure a famous win, leaving Kiwi fans scratching their heads. It was the second time in three World Cups, the French had upset the overwhelming favorites (after 1999), and it was beginning to look like perhaps France was the only country with a key to the All Blacks’ mighty lock on World Rugby. However, revenge was had in an underwhelming and physical 2011 Final, where the All Blacks came out on top 8-7 in the lowest scoring final ever.
Now, once again, the two teams will lock horns in a match perhaps the Les Bleus’ fans will feel they shouldn’t be in. They played poorly against a weakened Ireland in their final Group game, there by finishing second in the group, and drawing the favorites for the knockouts. France haven’t looked the same team in a while. Their captain Thierry Dusautoir aside, they’ve looked wobbly and weak, especially in defence, and will rue the fact that Ireland are the ones going on to face Argentina for a real shot at their first semis. While the All Blacks haven’t looked as fierce and dominant as the Boks, they have done the job and done it mechanically. None of their players have hit their peak, and yet, they are undefeated. They have won the last eight tests against France, and this time, even the most delusional French fan won’t be betting against the World Champions.
Prediction: NEW ZEALAND
2. South Africa v/s Wales
Twickenham, October 17th, 8 PM
Wales pulled off a heist of sorts by defeating a soulless English team by three points, and played their hearts out in one of the best Rugby World Cup encounters ever seen against a far stronger Australian team. They’re the fairy tale team of the World Cup, and will be further boosted by the football team’s advance into Euro 2016, a FIFA tournament, for only the second time in history. You just can’t get against them, but the South Africans are the only team with more brute force and physicality than them. They were hurt badly by the loss to Japan, and they hit back with vengeance, and were ironically helped by injury and no further participation by their captain Jean de Villiers – which allowed them more flexibility and less of a selection headache in the middle. Jesse Kriel has been excellent, as has de Allende, and they will be favorites once again to reach another semifinal. Whatever the result, I suspect this will be the match for the neutrals, and the tons of disappointed English fans – who will be curiously wondering which team can win their broken hearts.
The winner will probably face the All Blacks in the semis. Imagine that: The Boks v/s the All Blacks in a blockbuster semifinal encounter at Twickenham a week after.
Prediction: SOUTH AFRICA
3. Ireland v/s Argentina
Millennium Stadium, October 18th 1 PM
The Irish, not surprisingly – given their sheer heart and spirit – topped their group by demolishing France in the last group game. However, three of their top players Jonathan Sexton, Paul O’ Connell and Peter O’ Mahony were injured, and the participation of the hero of that game Sean O’ Brein is also in doubt. They have paid a heavy price to not face the All Blacks earlier than they would have liked, and have perhaps drawn the ‘easiest’ team in the quarters, underdogs and Dark Horses, Argentina, who have improved by leaps and bounds in the last decade. It will most likely be a second string Irish side scrummaging against them, but this will only even out the odds, and give them sort of a false dawn, considering they were prepared to face perennial finalists France at this stage. But Ireland’s replacements have shown more heart than most first teams, and this makes the contest the most difficult to predict. Whatever the case, the winner will most likely face Australia in the semis – which is a doomsday scenario on its own.
4. Australia v/s Scotland
Twickenham Stadium, October 18th 4 PM
A few days ago, Scotland just about made it by the skin of their teeth by defeating an inspired Samoan team in what was the most free-spirited open-ended encounter of the tournament. Japan must have been heartbroken to see the Scottish edge it by 36-33, because a loss for the sloppy Scottish side could have meant that Japan’s final win over USA would propel them into the quarters. But that wasn’t to be, and Scotland – the more traditional of the lot – find themselves facing the bravest team in the last eight. Australia, for all its history and superiority at sport, displayed the kind of human spirit and heart you rarely get to see in their otherwise mechanical and professional performances in the game against Wales. With two men down, they hung on and thwarted the Wales attacks for 15 straight minutes, only days after destroying England with speed and skill. They remained unbeaten in the pool, and will fancy themselves against a somewhat inconsistent Scottish side. This will only be their second ever World Cup encounter against the Wallabies; they lost the first in 2003 in Brisbane.
And there you have it. Once again, the cup could end up in the hands of a team from the South; there’s no escaping their dominance and pedigree in this sport. One suspects that the winner of the NZ v/s SA semifinal could go on to lift the cup again.