We’ve had upsets, dramas and all the highs and lows you could think of, and now we’re down to the final eight teams with a chance to lift The Webb Ellis Cup on 2 November. With four mouth-watering clashes to look forward to, here’s our guide to each Quarter-final…
Thus far, Eddie Jones’ men have been thoroughly untaxed. They began with a 35-3 win over Tonga, followed that up with a 45-7 victory against the United States, and then fought to a bruising 39-10 v Argentina. Then, of course, they didn’t even have to play their final pool game, which would presumably have been their toughest test. So into the quarter finals they go, with two weeks’ rest. Whether this will mean Farrell et al are nicely rejuvenated or a little rusty remains to be seen.
While England have had it all their way and have shown signs of improvement over the pool phase, the Aussies have had it a little harder, and haven’t exactly been at their dazzling best. From the first (slightly controversial) win over Fiji to the final ground-out victory over impressive Georgia (via a tense loss to Wales and a 45-10 result against Uruguay), things have been a bit tough for Michael Cheika’s side, who go into the clash against England with half as much rest as their opponents.
For the Aussies, captain Michael Hooper leads from the front and will no doubt be at his confrontational best against England. David Pocock will also likely be key at the breakdown, while stalwart Will Genia will do everything in his power to make sure his career doesn’t end with a quarter-final defeat.
In the England side, Owen Farrell really is make or break for his side’s fortunes. Tough centre Manu Tuilagi has thus far had an excellent tournament, and is guaranteed to be taking route one through the heart of the Aussie midfield.
Ask most people before this tournament, and they’d have the All Blacks down as nailed-on favourites. It’s still hard to look past them now, with a couple of astronomical results under their belt (63-0 against Canada and 71-9 over Namibia), and they did look solid in their first crunch match against the Springboks. That said, that was their last real test, and it was over three weeks ago. Since then they’ve had it easy, and then had their final pool fixture against Italy called off. Surely the mighty All Blacks wouldn’t suffer from rustiness… would they?
For Ireland, it’s been workmanlike, steady and dependable (for the most part). They began the tournament ranked number one in the world, though now their quarter-final opponents are back to wearing that familiar crown. The men in green will be missing key centre Bundee Aki following his three-week ban, so will have a slightly changed line-up for this crunch tie. Wins against New Zealand really are like buses for Ireland though – wait 111 years for one, and two come along at once (40-29 in 2016 and 16-9 last year)… will this be lucky number three?
It’s hard to pick just a couple of standout players from any All Blacks side. In this one, playmaker Beauden Barrett is key, along with the excellent Anton Lienert-Brown in midfield and captain Kieran Read packing down at eight. Mercurial Sonny Bill Williams is always worth keeping an eye on, often coming on as an impact player in this team.
Jonny Sexton pulls all the strings for Ireland, and his partnership with Conor Murray is crucial to the team’s fortunes. If both stay healthy and at the top of their game, Ireland have got more than a fighting chance of progressing to their first ever Semi-final.
Having progressed through the pool with an unblemished record, Wales should fancy their chances in most quarter-finals. France, however, is a different kettle of fish. Not only is everyone’s favourite cliché (“which France will turn up?!”) proving as true as ever, but memories of that infamous 2011 Semi-final might linger – particularly with such stringent tackle rules in place this year. All that said, Warren Gatland’s side has proven its mettle against Gallic opponents time and time again, and has come through particularly stern tests against Australia and Fiji to get to this stage.
As for France, it’s virtually pointless to analyse anything ahead of a Test Match. This year’s Six Nations clash against Wales is actually the perfect example of a typically unpredictable France performance. Les Bleus led 16-0 going into halftime against Wales in Paris, having put on a real show of dominance in the first 40 minutes. The home side capitulated after the break however, when Wales fought back through tries from Tomos Williams and George North and took the game 24-19 on their way to the Grand Slam. Amidst reports of a traditional mutiny amongst the squad, it’s impossible to predict what sort of performance France will put on in Oita, though it’s guaranteed to be memorable, whatever the outcome.
Justin Tipuric has been in stupendous form thus far in the tournament, and will likely be crucial when it comes to the battle of the breakdown. Captain fantastic Alun Wyn Jones will be looking to bow out in style, so will be fronting up in a solid pack for what’s sure to be a stern test by the French.
For France, a sparkling backline offers a permanent threat. Whether it’s Damian Penaud dancing down the wing, a sniping run by the excellent Antoine Dupont, or a robust run through the midfield by Virimi Vakatawa, there are dangermen scattered throughout this side.
In what really might be a case of saving the best until last, the final quarter-final promises to be an absolute cracker. This Japanese side has been in scintillating form throughout the World Cup so far, and show no signs of letting up. Of course, as has been endlessly discussed, these teams have a storied history. Though Japan might go into this clash as underdogs, they’re nowhere near as unfancied as back in 2015. And they won that time. This time they’re the home side, they’ll have the neutral support, and they’re riding high on a wave of success, coming fresh off the famous win over Scotland.
By contrast, the Springboks haven’t played since 8 October, when they overpowered Canada in Kobe City. Prior to that they had convincing and straightforward wins over Italy and Namibia and a hard-fought loss to the All Blacks way back on the first weekend. This team has played some fantastic rugby over the last few weeks, offering their signature brute strength with a nice side helping of flair. There is certainly a case to be made that the South Africans haven’t really gotten going: after that first clash against the All Blacks, every match was won with ease. It’ll be fascinating to see whether the Brave Blossoms can repeat their world-famous feats from Brighton and oust the powerful Springboks.
Kotaro Matsushima has lit up this World Cup so far, and if he gets the ball and just an inch of space, he’ll take some stopping. In the midfield, Timothy Lafaele has been a revelation – arguably one of the centres of the tournament – while Kazuki Himeno will provide the necessary brawn to beat the Boks.
Cheslin Kolbe has proved to be one of the most exciting players South Africa has produced in years, and will relish the chance to show off his sidestep on the big stage in Tokyo. The in-form Pieter-Steph du Toit will be crucial for the Boks’ chances of progressing.
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