We finally have our quarter-final line-up for the 2011 Rugby World Cup after a pulsating conclusion to the Pool Stages last weekend.
Of the home nations, the trio of England, Ireland and Wales booked their passages into the last eight at the expense of Scotland, Italy and Fiji respectively.
For Andy Robinson and his squad, they now have to deal with the realisation that for the first time in World Cup history, they will not make it into the knockout stages, despite being in winning positions against Argentina and the English.
Their lack of a cutting edge was their downfall, with their four tries in the tournament all coming in their opening win against Romania– and the same criticism can be leveled at Samoa.
The Pacific Islanders were valiant losers against both Wales and South Africa in their crucial Pool D clashes, but they had plenty of chances in both games to cause the upset they needed to go through.
While it was a bad weekend for the PacificIsland nation, one of them managed to cause the shock of the competition so far.
Tonga’s 19-14 win over France meant they ended their campaign in New Zealand on a high, although their earlier surprise defeat to Canada will have left them wondering what if.
Instead, we have many familiar names in the final eight, and there are some eye-catching match-ups to decide who will contest the semi-finals in 10 days time.
Week 4 results
Friday 30th September
Samoa 5-13 South Africa
Saturday 1st October
Australia 68-22 Russia; France 14-19 Tonga; England 16-12 Scotland
Sunday 2nd October
Argentina 25-7 Georgia; Canada 15-79 New Zealand; Fiji 0-66 Wales; Ireland 36-6 Italy
New Zealand v Argentina
While the hosts will be heavy favourites to overcome an inevitably stubborn Pumas’ resistance, the All Black’s World Cup dreams have taken the biggest possible blow imaginable.
At the age of 29 and viewed by the majority of the rugby world as the best player on the planet at the peek of his powers, this was set to be the tournament where Dan Carter confirmed his status as one of the all-time greats.
But fate has dealt the cruelest of blows when the fly-half sustained a calf injury in the build-up to their final pool match against Canada– an injury that not only ruled him out of that match, but also the rest of the tournament.
Not only is this a blow to a somewhat devastated Carter and his adoring public, but also to rugby fans around the globe who know that the sport’s showpiece event will be missing it’s shining light in the closing stages.
It also means that Graham Henry now needs to find someone who is able to step up and handle the pressure in the way that Carter, something that seems an almost impossible task.
Despite this blow, New Zealand remain the favourites for their first Webb Ellis Cup in 24 years and shouldn’t have too much trouble overcoming an Argentina side that worked incredibly hard to navigate a route out of Pool B.
The question now is how much do they have in the tank after such an exhausting few weeks, especially up against a team that strolled through their Pool campaign without dropping even a winning bonus point.
While the Pumas will pose a huge presence in the pack, the pace and agility of the All Blacks backline, even in the absence of Carter, should prove too much to prevent a repeat of Argentina’s third-placed finish back in 2007.
England v France
Despite campaigns that have drawn plenty of criticism for performances both on and off the pitch, England and France have the chance to reach their fifth and sixth World Cup semi-finals respectively.
England go into Saturday’s game with media focus on the wrong issues, as the trio of James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton were reprimanded after abusing a female hotel worker in Dunedin.
It has led to the media having a field day in questioning the antics and professionalism of the current squad, but despite some unconvincing performances, England go into Le Crunch with a 100% record.
For France their record is anything but 100%; having won their opening two games against Japanand Canada with bonus points, they followed it up with back-to-back defeats against New Zealand and Tonga.
This sums up the inconsistency of the French, but Martin Johnson will be fully aware that one week the French can be woeful, and the next week quite wonderful.
Johnson is expected to name a similar line-up to the one that edged past Scotland last weekend, although there could be an issue on the wing with Delon Armitage cited for a high tackle on Chris Paterson in that match that could lead to a suspension for the London Irish flyer.
With Mark Cueto still struggling with injury it seems that Matt Banahan will be the most likely deputy if the aforementioned duo is ruled out for differing reasons.
As for France, trying to predict what Marc Lievremont will choose for his final 23 is anyone’s guess; the last two weeks have seen him play two scrum-halves in the half-back positions, which could explain the struggle for direction in those defeats.
On current form, England will be tipped to knock France out of the World Cup for a fourth time following success in 1991, 2003 & 2007. But you would be naïve to rule out the French.
Ireland v Wales
Both Celtic nations have been impressive throughout the tournament so far, and have now been rewarded with paths that make a World Cup final a genuine possibility.
Ireland have been one of the teams of the competition so far after stunning Australia in week two and going on to make it four wins from four and clinching top spot in Pool C.
Meanwhile, Wales have recovered brilliantly from the disappointment of their narrow opening loss to South Africaby producing excellent wins over Samoa, Namibia and Fiji.
It means that whoever wins this Saturday’s contest will be rewarded with a semi-final against the winners of England& France, meaning that there will definitely be a Six Nations side in the final on October 23rd.
The way that both these teams are playing they will strongly fancy their chances, and it seems that the two most impressive back-rows of the World Cup so far will be a crucial factor in deciding the outcome of this match.
Ireland’s 6, 7 & 8 combination of Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip has been immense, winning turnover after turnover and continually creating platforms for their backs.
Same applies to the Welsh trio of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau, who have shown that their inexperience in youth has not harmed their performances on the biggest stage of all.
Lydiate returns to the fold after missing the last two games through injury along with wing wizard Shane Williams and James Hook, who may have to once again settle for a place outside of his favoured no.10 role.
Rhys Priestland has been very impressive at fly-half, and it seems that Hook will have to settle for a place at full-back if he is to get back in the team.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney has a big decision to make in the half-backs himself, with the choice of Conor Murray or Eoin Reddan at scrum-half and Ronan O’Gara or Jonathan Sexton alongside him.
This is such a tight game to call, but whoever comes through it will feel they have every chance of making it all the way in just over two weeks time.
South Africa v Australia
Out of all the quarter-final line-ups, the final match on Sunday is the one that raises the most eyebrows – mainly because this could have so easily have been the final itself.
Two of the tri-nations heavyweights battle it out for a place in the semis and to avoid the ignominy of crashing out so early in a tournament when their public expected so much of them.
This is down to the fact thatAustralia were unable to win their Pool, meaning that they have to go down the more difficult path of the Springboks and most likely the All Blacks for a place in the final.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has had a plethora of injuries to deal with, the latest seeing winger Drew Mitchell ruled out of the tournament with a hamstring injury.
Injuries are so severe that Deans resorted to playing his number eight Radike Samo on the wing during their victory over Russia last week, and with resources being tested, the last thing they want to do is face a South African side growing in confidence by the week.
After a difficult Tri-nations campaign leading into the tournament, Peter de Villiers side have now won their last five matches, and many of these players knows what it takes to win the world cup after success inFrance four years ago.
Now the reigning world champions go into this match with their tails up, although they have to deal with some injury heartache themselves after Francois Steyn was ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a shoulder problem.
It will be a case of who can construct their game more effectively; if Australia can get good possession through the likes of the influential David Pocock and Rocky Elsom and bring Will Genia and Quade Cooper into play, then the Wallabies can keep their dreams alive.
But if the South Africans grind them into a tight affair by getting on top of their pack in the way that the Irish did then Australia will need to find a plan B and quickly.
If they don’t, then the experience and know-how of a South Africa squad with world cup winners in it already could make the telling difference.
So what do you think? Who will come out on top in this weekend’s quarter-finals? How will the home nations fare in their must-win matches? Leave a comment and let us know your views.