Cape Town – The Springboks will end host nation Japan’s fairy-tale march through the World Cup thus far in their quarter-final duel, propelling them into a likely semi-final against recent bogey team Wales, who will eliminate France in the interim.
Meanwhile the All Blacks will repel Ireland to tee up a last-four tussle with England, who should down Australia beforehand.
That is my early call for the weekend’s quarter-final fixtures at RWC 2019, with motivations provided below:
England v Australia, Saturday, 09:15 SA time
My gut feel: England. Look, I wouldn’t write off the Wallabies here. They’ve exhibited flashes of genuine polish at this World Cup … but only flashes.
The Aussies were also responsible for that hugely eye-opening 47-26 Rugby Championship victory over the All Blacks in Perth this year, only to show their schizophrenic tendencies by crashing 0-36 a week later in the Bledisloe Cup “extra” game in Auckland.
England have been less than an outright excitement machine at RWC so far, yet still maintained their patience and structure sufficiently to earn extremely comfortable, professional wins against all of Argentina, the USA and Tonga - often a sign of “knockout pressure” strength and fortitude.
I believe they will muscle their way past this obstacle, bringing the bilateral win record in history exactly level at 25-25 and simply extending the record – to seven – for consecutive victories by either of these foes over the other. Aussie-born England mastermind Eddie Jones’s charges have been on a six-wins streak against the Wallabies since June 2016, including easy triumphs in each of the last two encounters at Twickenham (30-6 in 2017, 37-18 in 2018).
That said, perhaps working slightly in Wallaby favour will be the cancellation of England’s anticipated final pool match against the old enemy from the across the Channel, France, which would have primed them usefully for this clash.
New Zealand v Ireland, Saturday, 12:15 SA time
My gut feel: New Zealand. Expect the All Blacks to come out of this mouth-watering tussle substantially bruised … but yes, unbowed.
Ireland have enough blue-chip individual names in their ranks (very much including their SA-born loose forward dynamo CJ Stander) to be well capable of what would only go down as a relative upset.
But I also suspect that the Irish - like their hallowed opponents are quite widely perceived to be - are retreating from a recent peak of their own, and some of their heftier specimens haven’t appeared to be enjoying the sticky, draining conditions in Japan (very different to the Emerald Isle in the heart of rugby season there).
For collective athleticism, something the defending champions usually have in bag-loads anyway, NZ should crucially rule the roost in this one, even if some of their more stalwart troops haven’t had much of gallop so far at the event because of the typhoon-related call-off of the Italy match.
The All Blacks have an enormous historical supremacy (28-2, one draw) although a defiant Irish counter would be that those two triumphs (Chicago 2016, Dublin 2018) come amidst the last three encounters!
Wales v France, Sunday, 09:15 SA time
My gut feel: Wales. While France are traditionally one of those moody, “you just never know” type of teams, the men in scarlet should prove too wily.
Les Bleus – conveniently, you might argue – avoided tackling England in group play due to the lethal weather issues, ensuring an unbeaten RWC sequence of 3/3 heading into this date with the defending Six Nations title-holders.
But two of them were real skin-of-the-teeth conquests - 23-21 against each of Argentina and Tonga - which seemed to suggest France aren’t a resurgent force in global rugby yet.
Meanwhile the Welsh have gone about their business just a bit beneath the radar, it has seemed, despite topping their pool with a 100 percent record, including that vital 29-25 edging out of Australia: are they being just a little under-estimated in Japan? If so, it may be suiting them just fine.
Wales have a 50-44 dominance bilaterally, including clinching seven of the last eight encounters (the last a 24-19 triumph in France’s Parisian stronghold in the 2019 Six Nations).
In French favour, perhaps, is their 2-0 mastery of the neutral-ground duels: an incredible 51-0 result at London’s Wembley Stadium in the 1998 then-Five Nations, plus 9-8 victory in the semi-final of RWC 2011 at Auckland.
South Africa v Japan, Sunday, 12:15 SA time
My gut feel: South Africa. Most of the reasons for my confident suggestion that the Boks will finally leap out into a 2-1 lead in the modest history between these countries are documented in some detail right HERE
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