At last, the Rugby World Cup has reached the stage where it is worthy of the term “World Cup,” as far as raw rugby quality pitted against more of the same is concerned.
Let’s face it, it has truly been a “World Cup” in the sense that teams from across the globe have been seen competing, but the divide between the nations in the upper echelons of the Hallowed Game of Rugby and those occupying the lower tiers is simply too big to have delivered any excitement of note.
The result, up to now, has been a month-long drawn-out affair, bordering on the boring, with only here and there a blip of slight pulse-racing stuff. However, rugby lovers everywhere have been waiting patiently and now they are going to be rewarded. The time has come for clashes of rugby titans.
If this weekend’s action doesn’t set fans’ pulses racing, nothing ever will — not only because they are guaranteed to see masterly displays of rugby, but also because it’s now or never for all of the teams. The losers of a match in the weekend’s quarter-final knockout matches will be packing their bags and rue their chances; end of story.
It is do or die for these teams:
IRELAND VS WALES
Many rugby fans will give Ireland the nod to win against Wales today, but this is the World Cup and anything can happen. Ireland have produced the biggest upset in the pool stages when they beat Australia 15-6, but they have reached the quarter-final stages on four previous occasions and have never progressed. This time they have vociferous and inspiring support from a diehard crowd of traveling fans, which they admit have spurred them on — today it could just be the Celtic madness of their supporters in the stadium that pulls them through.
Wales, on the other hand, are a brave young team that have scored 23 tries in the pool stages, which is third-most after New Zealand’s 36 tries and Australia’s 25. They also produced some fireworks, most notably giving the Springboks a hard time to squeeze through 17-16 in their pool match, and have scored a total of 180 points so far — which is second only to New Zealand’s 240 points. Both teams have impressive back lines and the result of the game will probably depend on which team defends best.
ENGLAND VS FRANCE
This is the match of the day. The Auld Enemies are taking each other on at Eden Park in Auckland this afternoon and lovers of the game can expect that no quarter will be given — or asked for. World No. 4 England are going into the game as strong favorites to win. France are on the back foot after being beaten 19-14 by Tonga last weekend — and going down 37-17 to New Zealand in an earlier pool match — and will want to make amends. However, the mercurial Les Bleus traditionally deliver one great match at a World Cup, and they haven’t done so yet at this edition — chances are that this one may be it.
England are well aware of this and their team selection shows that the 2003 World Cup winners and current Six Nations champions are leaving nothing to chance. Or rather, they are not going to give France a chance to get the ball and produce rugby wizardry if they can help it. England manager Martin Johnson has said that the scrum will be the key battleground in this match and is looking at his strong forward pack to set up a winning platform.
Fans can expect a brutal battle up front ... and don’t be too surprised if Gallic flair manifests in the back line from time to time. The win will probably go to the team with the best discipline, that make the least mistakes and are able to produce individual brilliance when it matters most.
SOUTH AFRICA VS AUSTRALIA
This is the most evenly matched and most anticipated game of the weekend, without a shadow of a doubt. South Africa’s Springboks are the defending World Cup champions, while Australia’s Wallabies are the reigning Tri-Nations champions, having beaten both the Springboks and the All Blacks to win the annual Southern Hemisphere series. Both teams have won the Webb Ellis Trophy twice — the only teams in World Cup history to have done so. The Springboks are ranked No. 2 in the world; the Wallabies are No. 3. The Springboks are fielding a vastly experienced, heavy team with one or two stars that could make magic out of nothing; the Wallabies are taking to the field with a younger, more nimble team that love to make breaks and run with the ball.
How they counter each other’s strengths while exploiting their respective weaknesses will be crucial in deciding the winner. By all accounts this game will be a cracker, with not even the weather likely to make it easier for either team. Conditions are predicted to be wet and blustery tomorrow at the Wellington Regional Stadium — also known as the “Cake Tin” — where kicking high balls even in good weather is known to be tricky because of swirling winds caused by the Test venue’s unique design. Your columnist is not going to pick a side to win, simply because it is impossible in this instance.
NEW ZEALAND VS ARGENTINA
If Argentina record a win against the mighty All Blacks tomorrow at Eden Park in Auckland, the sun will probably rise in the west on Monday. It is always dangerous to make predictions, but let’s face it, the chances of the brave South American side winning against world No. 1 New Zealand are close to nil. The two teams have faced off 13 times in the past, with one game drawn and 12 going the All Blacks’ way.
However, the All Blacks are known chokers and, if the fickle rugby gods feel like it and if the New Zealanders do not take this match seriously, Argentina may just deliver the shock of the century. Don’t bet on it, though.
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