Rugby World Cup — Quarter Final Preview

6 games until the Final!

What a tournament it has been so far! Packed stadiums, flowing rugby, epic matches — the pool stages of this tournament were by far and away the most entertaining, interesting and enjoyable of the 8 competitions to date. Without a doubt, Japans shock victory of the Springboks will be the highlight of the tournament although the clashes between England, Wales and Australia will live long in the memory. The 2015 Rugby World Cup may be the tournament that has announced the arrival of professionalism for the tier 2 nations. Japan, Fiji, Georgia and Romania were all competitive while the likes of Namibia, Canada and Uruguay will be proud of their improved showings — all will be building positively for the future. And the most pleasing thing about the tournament is that the business end is just about to begin this weekend!

That look when you realise you will always be remembered for the guy who missed the tackle that meant the Springboks lost to Japan!

Before the first ball was kicked I wrote a framework that would help us decide on the likely eventual winners. I re-state the key attributes below, with some noted comments, before previewing this weekend’s Quarter Final matches. The winners of this Rugby World Cup will display the majority of the following six attributes:

1. Proven ability to win consistently tight matches — seven cup finals in a row;

This was the rock on which England’s campaign perished — they couldn’t close out the Welsh game because over the previous 3 years, they hadn’t learned how to be cold blooded winners. We will learn which teams possess the requisite character to get over the line in ‘one score games’ this weekend.

2. Power and pace;

Thankfully the emphasis on gainline bludgeoning hasn’t been the most evident attacking ploy on view so far — only France have played in a direct brutish manner.

I expect to see more emphasis on power and close-in carries in the coming games. The eventual champions will need to be able to withstand physical onslaughts thrown at them against opponents. I expect the Springboks to use a restricted combative gameplan in their remaining games.

3. Miserly defence;

To win close contests, teams will need to aim to concede less than ten penalties per game (under four of which are within kickable distance), turnover possession effectively and cut-off the gain line by varying line speeds.

Australia are looking the best team in this facet of the game thus far. Their defence both at the breakdown and in open-play has been magnificent. New Zealand cleverly varied their line speed against Argentina when McCaw was yellow-carded but struggled around the fringes during the same game. Ireland’s defence against France was of the highest possible standard. South Africa and Argentina have looked likely to concede tries.

4. Superior half-backs and an 85% place-kicker;

Yes — Dan Biggar, Bernard Foley, Dan Carter, Jonathan Sexton, Nicolas Sanchez.

No — Handre Pollard, Freddie Michalak, Greg Laidlaw.

5. Experienced pack and solid set piece;

Ireland’s forwards (pre injuries and suspension) could legitimately be described as a machine. Australia’s scrum problems have been remedied by Mario Ledesma. The All Blacks forwards have seen it all before and haven’t been tested yet. The Welsh — 4 to 8 especially — have been immense. Argentina’s pack, especially the backrow looks of the required quality. Doubts remain over South Africa’s scrum and backrow.

6. Squad depth with an impactful bench.

This is likely to be the factor that ends Ireland and Wales’ chances of winning the tournament. Both teams with their full complement are good enough to win the tournament but loss of key men. The translating effect of a decrease in proven quality over 80 minutes is enough to scupper their challenge in the tightest of matches against southern hemisphere teams with their full squads available.

Quarter Final 1: South Africa v Wales

“The great thing after we played Japan was that we changed the game-plan. It will be a cracker of a game and it doesn’t matter what happened before.” Heineke Meyer

So there we have it — three and a half years of trying to play a more expansive type of rugby and South Africa are going back to beating the living lard out of teams up front. In fairness, I would probably do the same if I was in Meyer’s position! The players or management won’t be allowed return home if they don’t restore pride in the Springbok jersey against Wales. Somehow, the embarrassing defeat against Japan, who were the better side in all aspects, has resulted in South Africa getting their best team on the field. The centre partnership of De Allende and Kriel should be excellent going forward but could be prone to being caught out defensively by more experienced cannier opponents. The second row looks like a partnership for the ages. And crucially Fourie du Preez is back playing rugby like Fourie du Preez. He will take a huge amount of pressure of Pollard and can direct the pack to play the bashing gameplan up front.

“He (Dan Lydiate) won’t need any extra protection. He just had a little plate inserted into his eye socket. He was fit last week, but we made the decision that we didn’t select him, so he’s fine now.” Warren Gatland

I had to do a double-take when I read these words from Gatland… “He just had a plate inserted into his eye socket, we thought Tipuric was a better choice against Pooper, but he’s actually in grand shape compared to the rest of the lads anyways so he’ll go out and do his usual 25 tackles a game routine this weekend!”.

It is hard not to have anything but respect for this Welsh team. Ballsy is probably the word that describes them most accurately. Gatland, Howley and Edwards have to take a lot of credit as the percentages and relentlessness of ‘Warrenball’ cracked England and very nearly did the same to Australia. Their conditioning should be studied by all teams — whatever is in that cyrotherapy chamber could be useful for going up Alpe D’Huez! A small bit of tactical nous in the second half against Australia would have seen them scalp a famous victory. Wyn Jones, Warburton, Faletau and Gareth Davies have played phenomenally well.

I think that this weekend will be a step too far for an injury ravaged squad who will be facing a team well equipped to defeat them in an arm-wrestle.

I backed South Africa at 11–1 to win the tournament after the Japan game. I think they can account for a tired and creaking Welsh team by playing it tight and making it a scrap. I expect the match to be close to level scores at half-time and wouldn’t put anyone off backing Wales with a +9 handicap.

I think South Africa’s price of 5–1 to win the competition now is accurate and will be getting rid of my bet as I think they’ll find New Zealand a step too far should they meet them in the semis.

One of the all-time great tries. Gareth Davies v England, Twickenham 26 September 2015

Quarter Final 2: New Zealand v France

“Not necessarily are you trying to do everything, but you are trying to work on parts of your game — and that’s the attitude we’ve taken into this tournament. Would you say our game was great, no, but it doesn’t have to be yet. You don’t get gold medals for winning these games, you just get to qualify.” Steve Hansen

Everything we have seen of the All Blacks over the last month is irrelevant. They were able to turn it on against Argentina when it was required and they used the other matches cleverly as “conditioned training games” to work on fitness and breakdown aspects as they knew they would never lose those games. Their powder is dry and they come into the match this weekend in rude health with all their over-30s players (Woodcock aside) fit and firing- Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Jerome Kaino, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw and Ma’a Nonu. Despite their age profile and 1000+ cap 23 man squad (incredible stat), this is no lame dog.

There is a theory that the All Blacks team may have peaked in the 2013 win against South Africa in Johannesburg. There have been a few injuries and resulting loss of quality since then but I think they are in a fantastic position to retain the trophy. We will see the All Blacks ratcheting up the pace and intensity this weekend in Cardiff with Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read timing their return to full form.

And what of France? The stories emanating from the camp that the players have taken control of training and effectively sacked Phillipe Saint Andre is hilarious only in its predictability. It is more French than a croissant. What people forget is that when they “have had a problem with that sort of thing before Ted”, it actually hasn’t worked out for them. When they revolted in 1987 and won the semi, they were subsequently smashed in the final. In 1999, a madcap 20 minutes in the second half had them pickpocket the All Blacks before again, they were flat as a pancake in the final. And well do we have to talk about revolutionary rabble they were four years ago?

Anyways, leaving the history lesson aside, last Sunday against Ireland, France weren’t as good as many people anticipated they would be. In fact, in the second half they were shite. They are a brute of a team and matched Ireland’s attacks with heavy and repeated tackling for the first 40 minutes but simply didn’t play with anywhere near the same intent immediately following half-time. Ireland matched their physicality and collisions and that was enough to see them off. The All Blacks will do the same.

France played with any lack of subtlety, depth or variation in attack. The reaction from the French supporters in Cardiff was magnanimous — Ireland were deserving victors but this was a poor French performance and one which was so blunt and singular that it bordered on disrespecting their rich rugby heritage.

I would be amazed if they generate a performance to take on New Zealand on Saturday night as for four years they have looked stunted and distinctly average (they havent beaten Wales or Ireland in this World Cup cycle). Philippe Saint-Andre’s mantra during the last three years was that everything was geared towards building for the World Cup. Well it wasn’t alright on the night and barring a dramatic collapse, New Zealand playing to 70% of their Quad Nations form beats this French team by a double-digit amount. There are major problems with the twin structural politics of French rugby which has severely impacted their national team. No amount of back-slapping and bitching will be able to transform them into a competitive force — New Zealand -12 is a bet for me.

The world’s best scrum-half showing just why — Aaron Smith scoring the decisive try versus Argentina in Wembley

Quarter Final 3: Ireland v Argentina

“It’s a mix really because it has come at a cost. Some of our leadership and talisman are a doubt for next week and that’s a concern but I am incredibly proud of the character that was shown and the cohesion as well “ Joe Schmidt directly after the battle of Crimea last Sunday.

I wrote my reactions to last week’s game here.

I was grieving the loss of Paul O’Connell and the cruel ending of his career for most of this week but I might be on the upward turn now looking ahead to this Sunday!

Argentina come into the quarter finals having the benefit of resting half their squad and a nice easy run out against Namibia. They have played free-flowing rugby against the tier 2 nations but we need to be realistic — we didn’t learn too much new recently that we haven’t seen from Argentina in the Quad Nations this summer. Yes, their wingers are a bit pacier than we appreciated and their skill level is better than in the past with nice hands and offloads in the tackle but other than that, we know that Argentina are good enough to be a top 6 side without being top 3 team.

Los Pumas pushed New Zealand hard in Wembley — indeed they should have been further ahead at half time in that match after starting poorly and being 9–0 down after 20 minutes. However, in the championship minutes, when New Zealand opened the game up by attacking outside shoulders and playing two forward pods in the 15 metre channels, that was enough to see Argentina off comfortably.

Nobody should be in any doubt that Argentina are a significantly better side than France. Ireland will hold no fear for them in having recently beat South Africa in Durban. In true Argentinian style, they are set-up in the pack to play combative test match rugby with a good tight 5 and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Leonard Sentori leading the carries. Their half-backs look sharp, with probably the best scrum half in the tournament to date in Tomas Cubelli (even eclipsing Aaron Smith and Conor Murray). They have heaps of speed in the three quarter line and a markedly better centre partnership coordinated by Il Mago Hernandez than the 10–12–13 trio Ireland faced against France. Argentina will try to absorb the Irish phase-play, disrupt the tempo of their recycle and then hit on the counter attack with speed out wide. Joe Schmidt will have a plan to keep this game structured and not let it into a dog-fight in which Los Pumas traditionally flourish.

I won’t touch on the impact of the Irish injuries any more as my head isn’t up to getting into that trauma again!

Ireland delivered a monumental display in a war last Sunday with accurancy, intensity, precision and execution being the hallmark of this team. Leaving aside the players that are missing - Cian Healy, Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip , Conor Murray and Rob Kearney are now the leaders of this team and Irish supporters need to remember that these players are as good as anyone else in the world in their positions who have consistently delivered in their careers in the most confrontational and pressurised of situations.

It is difficult to expect Ireland to reach the same excellent heights that they did in the ruck and tackle last week again this Sunday. But the directness and combative intensity that this team has displayed over the last two years will stand them in good stead for what is sure to be an almighty battle. If Ireland can come through unscathed with no injuries (probably unlikely) the talent in the collective 23 — allied with the the tactical organisation that makes Ireland a horrible team to play against - will be good enough to sneak past Argentina in a tight game. Ireland need to start well and probably be leading with twenty minutes to go in order to do this. Overall, I think Ireland by 3.

ex-Toulon waterboy Freddie Michalak left dismantled by the Joe Schmidt machine

Quarter Final 4: Australia v Scotland

“I am learning that, as we are all, when you truly believe in your team then all that stuff is irrelevant. You just pour all your belief into your team” — Michael Cheika’s words after the England match.

To quote The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I wrote before the tournament that Michael Cheika was the key that Australia were searching for and somehow they came into this tournament under the radar aided by England’s inflated expectations. It seems like an awful long time ago since Australia lost in Mendosa and the madness of the Di Patson episode was unfurling.

The Wallabies bounced back into Twickenham and systematically took apart England in every department. The back play orchestrated by Bernard Foley and Matt Giteau, around whom Cheika rewrote Australia’s eligibility criteria, was brilliant in its simplicity. The attacking play is straight from the template that Cheika used to the greatest success in Dublin and Sydney. At the breakdown, the “Pooper” double act of David Pocock and Michael Hooper is close to unplayable if you don’t have pre-meditated pod clearouts. The scrum has been transformed from underlings to overlords and their 20 minute defensive siege against Wales last weekend was something I have never seen at this level and will instil belief and a hard edge (factor 1) into the players.

So are they beatable? Yes. Can Scotland beat them? I don’t think I need to answer that.

I won’t waste time and virtual words talking about Scotland because they are not a competitive team at this level. At the moment, they are the standard of a club side who wouldn’t get to the semis of a Heineken Cup. In fact they display none of the six factors in their team from our framework.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Australia rested David Pocock and Israel Folau this weekend. Both limped off against Wales — worrying as Pocock is more injury prone than a Welsh back (!)and Folau has looked out of sorts from his usual sparkling self thus far.

Wales provided the template for how to take on and beat this Australian team. An Aussie win playing at 60% against Scotland will be enough to have them fresh and ready for a semi-final against a possibly decimated Ireland or crumpled Argentina. As I can see Australia easing up in the last 20 in this match, I will stay out of the 16 point handicap before kick-off and I learned my lesson backing Scotland to win last week — if Samoa weren’t so Samoan Scotland wouldn’t be at this stage of the competition.

Epic encounters in Twickenham have scaled the heights… I can’t wait for the rest of the matches!

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