After forty cruelling pool matches, we have our eight quarter finalists. Four intriguing fixtures await this weekend starting with Wales and Argentina, Ireland facing the perennial powerhouse that is New Zealand, Fiji looking to play with freedom to upset England while South Africa will look to take down the hopes of the host nation France.
Wales vs. Argentina
I admire how Wales have gone about their work in this tournament. They have taken pivotal player retirements before the tournament and injuries during the pool phase of the competition in their stride. Wales went four from four in the pool stages and were the standout team in their pool.
Warren Gatland breeds confidence into any team he manages. This Welsh side is no different and each player has delivered for the nation in this tournament. Dan Biggar comes back to the first team this weekend and Jac Morgan has led from the front. The competition though ramps up from here.
Argentina is coming into this fixture under the radar. They have rebuilt their form and confidence in recent pool fixtures. The England fixture was a disaster. They never fired a shot against England despite Tom Curry’s early red card. The favourites tag rattled the Los Pumas with stage fright.
Michael Cheika and management have nurtured the team through the rest of the pool games. Their win over Japan was a playoff fixture and they showed freedom of expression in their attacking play exposing Japanese defensive misreads at key points to secure the last eight berth.
This game comes down to the pack battle. Wales without Faletau and Argentina without Matera. Which side has the adaptability to cope the best without their talismanic pack player?
Argentina will have zero fear of Wales. Their form is solid and they know that they need to lift the performance levels now. I get the sense that Argentina have a big performance in them. The Argentine front five on paper looks likely to turn the screw here to allow Boffelli to slot the penalties to secure an Argentine win. Playoff rugby and the pack battle will be decisive on this fixture in particular.
Ireland vs. New Zealand
There are so many storylines from this fixture. Can Ireland break that mental barrier of advancing to a World Cup semi-final? Does Joe Schmidt really have the inside track on an Ireland side who have evolved their attacking and defensive work since his departure? Has Ian Foster gone too conservative against this Ireland side?
New Zealand have recovered well since their opening night loss to hosts France. They showed flair and creativity on their tries but were second best in the kick game and set piece where the hosts imposed their will on the game in the final quarter. Ireland will have taken note.
The team selection for New Zealand is intriguing. The side is loaded with pace in the back three but the omission of Telea and Roigard means that New Zealand pace and creativity even off the bench is curtailed. Experience has won the day in Foster’s selection over massive talent and skill set.
New Zealand will look to probe Ireland on the set piece. Lomax is a key addition but is the front row fully fit? The scrum for Ireland has been effective against South Africa but the lineout proficiency is with the jury. South Africa contested the lineout throughout and expect New Zealand to do the exact same.
The officiating style of Wayne Barnes will be a fascinating watch. The defensive line speed for New Zealand and Ireland will need to be on point which may be borderline penalty infringement territory. Ireland have seen first hand when you give New Zealand time that they will score tries. New Zealand’s back three even without Telea is stacked.
Ireland will need to pick their moments to attacking with width. The front five need to set the platform and the back row continuing to impress in their breakdown work. Sexton will have a target on his back, so it is important that the pack early set the tone and force New Zealand to engage more in the pack battle because you know the big shot on Sexton is coming early.
Ireland’s focus needs to be performance first. If they can do that then the game will take care of itself. The benches will be decisive in the closing stages. Jack Crowley may need to create a moment of magic to secure this win for Ireland as this game is too close to call. New Zealand will look to set the game alight early so it is up to Ireland to front up and stem the pressure early.
Expect a change in the Ireland back three tomorrow. Jimmy O’Brien will see significant game time given the plight of Hansen and Lowe. The kick game from our back three must be nailed on tomorrow to put the maximum pressure on New Zealand’s back three unit like France did in the opening night of this tournament.
The Ireland squad are primed for a performance. Their pool performances have been good, but this needs to go to another level this weekend. There are squad players who have tasted quarter final heartbreak. This must add fuel to the fire. Embrace the fixture and the performance. Ireland edge this by three to five points as New Zealand’s bench options look diminished without Telea and Roigard at nine backup particularly.
England vs. Fiji
England went four from four in this tournament. Their opening win over Argentina was sheer defiance. The defiance to keep to the game plan with fourteen players, the ability of George Ford to get penalties, drop-goals. Each player tackled exceptionally well and provided support when required.
The subsequent games have exposed England frailties seen in 6N tournament play. The defensive setup too tight and better opposition would have exposed this more. Samoa unlucky last weekend played with abandon in the second quarter and England could not live with it.
England will know the capabilities of Fiji but will that Fiji spirit and attacking freedom come seen in Twickenham before the World Cup come to the party here? It is questionable at this point. The team selection is interesting. Smith in at full-back while Farrell takes the ten jersey. Cohesion issues perhaps?
Fiji’s win over Australia in matchday two should have propelled the side to greater performance levels but the expectation levels has hindered the side. Two horrendous performances over Georgia and Samoa have seen Fiji clouded in their attacking play and game management.
If Fiji can reset and get back to playing with freedom, then they have a massive opportunity to secure a last four berth. Fiji’s mindset determines this result. It needs to come this weekend. England will prey on this vulnerability early.
If this game was played four weeks ago, I would have said Fiji without hesitation. This weekend is different. I am worried on the recent Fiji performances and because of this I edge it to England by seven points. Fiji will get opportunities. The question is whether they are clinical enough to do so? Based on their recent performances, that is a negative personally.
France vs. South Africa
This is the fixture of the tournament. South Africa are looking at the French side and looking for the vulnerability. Antoine Dupont will be rattled early and often. They look for the leader who is at their weakest. Why change now?
South Africa in another tournament could and should have topped their pool only for poor goal kicking against Ireland. Pollard is back in the matchday squad this weekend to provide stability off the tee if required from the bench. Manie Libbok starts and needs to impress early with ball in hand and orchestrate a game plan which will test France to breaking point.
France have produced some wonderful attacking cameos. Their opening day win over New Zealand combined pack power, astute kicking and creative back field play to unlock New Zealand in that second half. South Africa’s pack power is a force of nature. Will they be able to stand up to that intensity for eighty minutes?
France and Dupont need to flex their muscles early here. They cannot look to play from behind as South Africa will look like New Zealand to start with a spectacular opening cameo. Antoine Dupont is world class but does the facial injury change things? Woki, Alldritt, Ramos and Jalibert have stepped up and they will do again as try scoring opportunities look like at a premium in this game.
This game comes down to fine margins. South Africa will bring it for the entire game. France must not let their intensity drop at any rate. A marquee test nation is packing their bags next Monday here and it is all on the line. A close call again.
Ben O’Keefe’s interpretation of the set piece and breakdown battle will decide this game. Slight edge to South Africa but the hosts support will play their part here on a key decision during the game. South Africa are going to have to beat everyone on the pitch, silence the partisan crowd to get this result. This scenario is perfect for Rassie and the South African team to deliver once more; siege mentality mode is when South Africa revel most.
Quarter Final Predictions
Argentina, Ireland, England and South Africa.