The quarter-finals of Rugby World Cup 2015 are upon us, and with it disappears the security of games in hand and bonus points. It is last chance saloon for the best eight sides in world rugby and as the field is set to half again after the weekend, let's look ahead to see who we can expect to feature further down the line.
South Africa v Wales
The Springboks have been hugely unpredictable since the initial injury to Captain Jean De Villiers. Since then they’ve had a clean sweep of losses in the rugby championship, their first ever defeat to Ireland, a historic loss to Japan and, crucially, a loss to Wales.
Wales, however, have gone from strength to strength in recent seasons. Since a large Welsh contingent returned from a successful Lions tour they have been transformed from perennial “nearly “men to big game performers. They have beaten Ireland and England in recent World Cup clashes and pushed favourites Australia to the limit.
Their injury list has been well documented, but the adversity seems to have brought the best out of Warren Gatland’s men. The Welsh camp is exuding a quiet confidence that they can win the whole tournament. While this seems unlikely it will be an advantage over their quarter-final opponents who cannot say the same.
There is no doubting the power and talent at South Africa's disposal, but they have shown frailty in closing out matches, and inconsistent performances. Losing to Japan may have been the wake-up call they needed, but their final match against an awful USA outfit could have pulled them back into their false sense of security.
Even in their demolition of Scotland there were a number of world class players who were still far from their best. No matter their form, however, they always have monstrous ball carriers that can keep them moving forward. Wales will have to once again put their bodies on the line to halt them.
When the two sides meet to kick off the quarter-finals, if Wales can start they way they did against Fiji and Australia and control the pace of the game they will stand a very strong chance.
Given current form, I believe that Wales have the advantage in the back row. If they can avoid injury and control possession, keeping a high tempo and mixing their game up between their big men and their quick men they will win this fixture. Anything resembling an arm wrestle will see them crash out.
It is hard to overlook South Africa as favourites because despite Wales' dogged determination, and inspirational players, the sheer might of the scrum will see penalty after penalty. If it goes close I pick Wales, but if they can't stop the South African bulldozer, they may lose by a margin.
New Zealand v France
Who would want to put money on this match? This will be a clash of arguably the two deepest squads in world rugby. But both sides are tumultuously unpredictable. And there is hugely dramatic history that cannot be ignored between the two.
France's legacy is largely based on being the All Black slayers. One of those occasions was even in the same stadium, at the same stage of the World Cup in 2007. Last World Cup saw them come within a hair of shocking the world and defeating the men in black in the final of their home tournament. Thierry Dusautoir for one will want to turn the tables.
New Zealand have had a fairly torrid start to the Championship. A strong showing against Argentina saw them butcher opportunities time and again. The rest of their matches were largely stuttering performances with sprinkles of the individual stardust we all know they possess.
The French have been rather more consistent. Freddie Michalak has been inspired for much of the tournament and with threats like Fofana and Dumoulin they have amazing balance in the midfield, with the impact of Basteraud from the bench. The first half against Ireland showed what a force they can be when they maintain organisation.
Their defence was rock solid against and unrelenting attack from huge ball carriers and clever running lines. So far, New Zealand haven't shown that they are capable of matching that standard.
New Zealand's pack has been second best on a number of instances in the Group stages, and with the loss of Tony Woodcock you feel like that will be the case once again on Saturday. The French attitude often reflects their scrum dominance. If they start giving away penalties, they lose their physicality elsewhere as well. But if they get the shunt on it invigorates the rest of the team, and this will be of particular concern to the All Blacks.
If it were almost any other New Zealand side, I'd have the French as favourites. But the contingent that will march into the quarter-finals are a class above anything that has come before. Most of them already have the experience of winning a World Cup. Of going a whole season undefeated. And of winning matches which they had no right to win.
Their core of leadership is of the highest quality world rugby has ever seen. Whereas France will always look to Dusautoir, the Kiwis will rally behind the likes of McCaw and Read, Nonu and Smith, and plenty of other experienced campaigners.
Due to this factor New Zealand will likely come away with a victory, but if they are going to be stopped at all in this tournament, this is the most likely stage.
Argentina v Ireland
It is testament to Ireland that they will go into this match as favourites. Argentina have been sensational in dispatching the other teams in the group after New Zealand. Since their first loss, they have had the smoothest journey into the quarters of any side. they have not once looked in peril against the smaller sides, where New Zealand have stuttered against Georgia, Ireland against Italy, South Africa against Japan.
Teams like Ireland and Australia have been sharpened by extremely high standard test matches against France and Wales respectively. They will be ready to enter the knockout stages already firing on all cylinders, but it is uncertain whether Argentina will be.
The flip side of that coin was the emotional and physical expenditure of the Irish in their last outing. The post-match scenes demonstrated how important that match was to the fans and players from both sides. In a World Cup, you assume that the players will have no trouble building themselves up for the game, but can they sustain the full 80 minutes as they did against France?
The physical toll will have somewhat depleted their strength in depth. No side can lose a leader like Paul O'Connell without consequence even though the starting lock combination of Toner and Henderson can compete with any in the world.
Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahoney may be the biggest losses in terms of impact as both of them lead the way with their physicality at the breakdown which is so key to Ireland's game. Chris Henry is an excellent Openside who can get over the ball and Jordi Murphy is a terrific prospect but facing the Pumas you want a full strength unit.
Much like the All Blacks, this may be the most vulnerable Ireland will be. Sexton and Earls are also less than 100% and if they are unavailable and the focus shifts away from the opposition the new combinations may struggle to find the necessary accuracy.
Both backlines have excellent kicking options and game awareness and will want to play in the right areas. This may be the closest match to call of any quarter-final, but the genius of Joe Schmidt is an X-factor that gives you faith in Ireland's approach to any opposition.
His level of analysis is above any coach in the competition, and he has the talent at his disposal to put any plan into fruition. You never know for sure exactly what tricks the Irish will employ to make your day difficult, but you can assured that any chink in the armour will be exposed.
Whether it's chip kicks, inside balls, wrap-arounds, cross fields, they have the ability to play any tactic well, and so often when you plug one hole, they have the experience to know when to target another.
If Argentina can get through the first up defensive line and free their hands for the offload, they will continue to score tries. But against the Irish, that is a big if. I'm going with the Irish victory.
Australia v Scotland
This may be the most obvious miss-match of the round, even if it will still be hugely competitive. I feel like Scotland missed their chance to do something special at World Cup when they flopped against South Africa. When the pressure really came on they crumbled and their talent, and squad depth were exposed.
They have a huge reliance on Finn Russell to spark their backline, and on Mark Bennett to deliver the eventual blow. When you compare that to the quality of player that doesn't even make the Australian squad you begin to lose faith in the upset.
It has also been shown that Scotland don't have the ballast up front to match the top sides. Their front row has gone well in their group, and John Hardie has been a revelation, but missing Jonny Gray due to being cited, they can't compete with the likes of Australia. Ross Ford also misses out for the same incident which will severely hinder their lineout.
They will struggle to retain ball anyway against the lethal Wallaby combination of Hooper and Pocock. They may not get parity at the scrum which has blown every pack away so far. And if they defend remotely like they did against Samoa, they will concede a hefty tally.
Scotland will in a corner against the current World Cup favourites. They need to come out guns blazing and keeping the ball alive as much as possible. If they can move Australia around, and let the likes of Hogg and Maitland open up their running games they might stand a chance.
But in the match against Wales, Australia showed they do not have any weak links across the lineup. Even down to 13 men the Welsh battering could not burst the gates open. You get the sense that Scotland won't fare any better.
Given Australia's momentum and mental toughness alone, it is tough to envisage any other result than the green and gold in the semis.
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