After five weeks of gruelling, physical rugby that saw more than a few surprises, we get to the quarter-final stage of the Rugby World Cup. There is a huge amount on the line and some massive games to be played.
So let’s take a look at the huge fixtures coming up this weekend as well as making some predictions.
Wales vs Argentina
The weekend begins with one of the quarterfinals that is hard to predict. Wales and Argentina have both been in inconsistent form heading to the tournament but have both managed to make it through to this round of the competition.
Wales are the higher ranked team coming into this game. They have done something not a lot of people expected in winning all four of their group games to comfortably finish top of Pool C. Except for the final twenty minutes against Fiji, Wales have been the better team in each game.
They comfortably cruised away from Wales before avenging their defeat against Georgia from the previous year. It mean’s that Warren Gatland’s side head into this game with a lot of momentum.
They will also be encouraged by good injury news this week. Dan Biggar and Liam Williams are both back fit for the quarter-final, although they will be missing Taulupe Faletau who broke his arm in the pool stage.
Gareth Anscombe is another of the player’s who misses out, with his groin injury keeping him out of this game. Wales have always been a good tournament team and that seems to be the case this year. They will know that this game against Argentina is a great opportunity to get to the semi-finals.
Argentina will know that they have been slightly overlooked in the last month. Expectations were high on this Argentinian side, so when they made mistake after mistake and lost to England in their first game, those expectations went out the window.
Over the last few weeks, Michael Cheika’s side have been able to turn it around. After wins over Samoa and Chile, it all came down to the final group stage game against Japan. Argentina took care of business and now head to the quarterfinals of the tournament again.
Sadly for Argentina, they will be without key man Pablo Matera in the quarter-final after he was ruled out through injury. Facundo Isa has some big shoes to fill in that back row, although he has two destructive forwards in there with him. This will only be Isa’s third start of
In the backs the only change to the Argentinian side is Gonzalo Bertranou being replaced by Tomas Cubelli. It is a slightly strange move, as Cubelli has only played 110 minutes of test match rugby this year. He is incredibly experienced in the Rugby World Cup, however.
Argentina have power the pitch. We are yet to really see the exciting open field play of guys like Mateo Carreras and Lucio Cinti, so they could be influential in this game.
I think that Wales will probably have too much for Argentina. They have looked like the more organised side out of the two. I think the game will be incredibly close, but Wales seem like the most likely team to head to the semi-finals.
Ireland vs New Zealand
The strange way that the draw has turned out means we have got two huge clashes at the quarter-final stage. The first of those two is in Saint-Denis where Ireland will face New Zealand.
Andy Farrell’s team had the exact sort of pool stage that they were looking for. After massive wins over Romania and Tonga, they were able to edge reigning World Cup champions South Africa in one of the best games of the tournament so far.
Having blown Scotland away, they topped pool B, and have the All Blacks facing them. Ireland will take comfort in the fact that they have won three of the last four matchups between the two teams, including their famous series win over the All-Blacks last summer.
They will also be encouraged by Mack Hansen being cleared to play. Losing James Ryan is a tough one, but it does not change the starting lineup of Ireland. Andy Farrell has picked the same team for the game against New Zealand as in the win over Scotland.
It is a very strong team for Ireland, but they have an incredibly difficult test in New Zealand. The All Blacks started the tournament awfully, losing for the first time in the Rugby World Cup pool stage against France.
It was an embarrassing loss, but New Zealand have been on a tear since then. While the All Blacks demolishing Namibia and Uruguay was expected, the way that they crushed Italy was spectacular. No one saw a 96-17 scoreline coming and New Zealand looked unstoppable in attack.
That pesky Rugby World Cup draw that I was talking about has really disadvantaged the All Blacks. They now have to face number one team in the world Ireland just to get to the semi-finals. While they did lose that series, the All Blacks will remember that they smacked Ireland in the quarterfinals four years ago.
Only eight of the starters this weekend started the final game of the series against Ireland next year. So it is clear this is a very different All Blacks team, with some surprises in the team selection.
Mark Telea misses out due to disciplinary issues, with Leicester Fainga’anuku his replacement. Despite his brilliant group stage, Cam Roigard is not in the squad, with Finlay Christie preferred to back up Aaron Smith. The experience of Dane Coles is also preferred on the bench over Samisoni Taukei’aho.
New Zealand have been attacking at a completely insane level. They could cause some real problems for Ireland, especially as the Ethan de Groot returns to cause some disruption at the scrum.
This game is so difficult to predict. Ireland are the number one team in the world, but they have never made it past the quarterfinals at the Rugby World Cup. This is still Ireland’s game to lose and I think they will edge past New Zealand. It is going to be a thriller that is for sure.
England vs Fiji
Sunday’s schedule begins with England against Fiji. Few people were expecting this matchup to be taking up one of the quarterfinals, but both team’s have impressed so far.
England surprised a lot of people, including English fans, by winning Pool D and not having a loss so far in the tournament. They backed up that impressive win over Argentina with a confident display over Japan and a thrashing of Chile.
But we saw some of the England of old against Samoa, as a late Danny Care try meant they scraped through that game with a one-point win. It was not the sort of result which England would have been hoping for heading into the quarterfinals.
In response to that result, Steve Borthwick has done some pretty strange things with his team selection. The major news is that George Ford has been dropped to the bench, with Owen Farrell starting at 10. Marcus Smith starts at 15, with England men’s player of the year Freddie Steward not even in the squad.
Premiership Rugby Player of the Season Ollie Lawrence is on the bench, with Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant’s the starters at centre. It is an all-round strange selection from Borthwick, particularly as Farrell has struggled in an England shirt recently, while Ford has been arguably England’s best player of the pool stage.
Fiji making it to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007 is a big achievement for them. Their win over Australia was a brilliant moment and Fiji definitely deserve to be in the quarterfinals, as they also had an impressive victory over a strong Georgian team.
But Fiji have been just as inconsistent as England. In that pool stage they also have losses to Wales and Portugal. Both of those losses were incredibly close, with Fiji fumbling away the chance to beat Wales. Their loss to Portugal is probably the shock of the tournament, but it was a one-off fixture where Fiji knew that a single bonus point was enough to send them through.
So I don’t think that will discourage Fiji too much. What will encourage Simon Raiwalui’s team is that they record their first ever win over England just seven weeks ago. While both teams have changed a lot since, Fiji will still be massively encouraged by that recent result.
Fiji have made five changes to the XV which lost to Portugal. The most notable change is that Temo Mayanavanua is out injured, so Albert Tuisue will start at lock. While Tuisue might be out of position, he adds another attacking option to this Fijian side. Fiji also bring in Tevita Ikanivere for Sam Matavesi who drops to the bench.
There are two changes in the backs. A slight reshuffle sees Semi Radradra return to the lineup, partnering Vinaya Habosi on the wing. Ilaisa Droasese is brought in for Sireli Maqala. Fiji have gone for an incredibly exciting backline and their forward pack have some big hitters in it.
Levani Botia will be a real nuisance for England, but Steve Borthwick’s side seem to be likely favourites for this game. They are a strong team and I think England will have too much for Fiji on Sunday.
France vs South Africa
The weekend ends with a monstrous clash between arguably the two most physical sides in the world. Rugby World Cup hosts France face an incredibly tough test in reigning world champions South Africa.
France are one of the four unbeaten teams in the tournament, having started the competition with a huge win over New Zealand. While a nervous result against Uruguay followed, they cruised to top of the pool with wins over Namibia and Italy.
The big question mark about this French side heading into the knockouts is how injured they are. Well that was answered when the French team was announced and Antoine Dupont was named to start.
Despite fracturing his cheekbone just three weeks ago, Dupont is fit to start again this weekend. He is the only change to the French XV for this massive game against the Springboks.
Sadly for France, Julian Marchand has not returned from his injury and will be a big miss this weekend. It puts a lot of pressure on Peato Mauvaka who starts at hooker. The rest of the French pack includes stars like Gregory Aldritt, Uini Atonio and Cameron Woki who are all going to need to have big games against South Africa.
This powerful pack will have a difficult test in the Springboks. South Africa were able to control their first game against Scotland, before putting in a thumping of Romania. While they lost to Ireland, losing by five points to the number one team in the world is not the end of the tournament for South Africa.
In fact, four years ago they lost in the pool stage and went on to win the tournament. A Comprehensive victory over Tonga means South Africa head into this game with momentum, as well as a two week break to recharge and get some crucial players back on the pitch.
South Africa’s team selection has confused a few different people. Faf de Klerk is on the bench as Cobus Reinach get’s the start at nine. Despite Rugby World Cup winning Handre Pollard being back healthy, Mannie Libbok is the starter at 10.
Duane Vermeulen is preferred at eight over Jasper Wiese, with Trevor Nyakane unlucky to miss out on the squad all together. By the looks of it, South Africa are planning on bringing on their replacements early on, aiming to overwhelm France in the second half.
Similar to the Ireland New Zealand game, this one is incredibly difficult to pick. These two teams have only played once in the past five years, with France coming out on top.