The first couple of weeks of the Rugby World Cup are a bit dull for the casual fan, especially from the nations with better teams. Basically the group stage is all about letting teams like the USA, Japan and Russia get games against top flight opposition, and giving the likes of Scotland, Italy and Argentina a chance to prove that they are not so poor as people might think. There’s generally space for one of them at the top table, and Argentina bagged it again.
There is also the question of automatic qualification for next time. Tonga, Scotland, Italy and Samoa picked up those slots.
For everyone left in the tournament, however, things have got serious. Here’s how the quarter-finals line up:
Wales v Ireland
England v France
South Africa v Australia
New Zealand v Argentina
The final game is the easy one to call. New Zealand are the hosts and favorites; Argentina are gutsy but not in the same league. But there’s one big wild card. The All Blacks have lost their talismanic fly half, Dan Carter, to injury. Fly half is the rugby equivalent of a quarterback, so think of how the Colts have imploded without Peyton Manning. His backups are less than stellar. Colin Slade was given an outing in an earlier game and looked terrified. I like Aaron Cruden a bit better, but he’s inexperienced. The question that everyone in the UK is asking is, “what the heck is Nick Evans doing still in England?” If New Zealand fail to win this tournament it will probably be because of Carter’s injury and their rule of not picking anyone who doesn’t play his club rugby for a home-based side.
Defending champions, South Africa, have had a very poor year by their usual high standards. They got some almighty drubbings in the Tri-Nations, but that was mainly because their head coach, Peter de Villiers, was keeping his best players under wraps for the World Cup. Australia won the Tri-Nations, but have been disappointing at the tournament. They also have a lot of good players out with injury. Fond as I am of the Wallabies, I’m pretty sure that the Bokke will grind their way into the semi-finals.
The England-France game is a battle of two disaster zones. England’s play thus far has been very poor, and their head coach, Martin Johnson, seems to have been spending more time defending his players for their drunken antics off-field, and in disciplinary hearings for serious foul play and breaches of the kit sponsorship rules, than he has getting them to improve their form. England have conceded more penalties than any other team. France, meanwhile, have been terrible, culminating in an embarrassing loss to Tonga. The papers are full of stories of how Marc Lievremont has lost the confidence of his players and has no idea who to pick. The good news for French supporters, however, is that their team is famously mercurial. They can pull a brilliant performance out at any time. England teams, in contrast, tend to take a long time to turn around.
The game to watch is undoubtedly Ireland v Wales. The Irish are in fine form, coming off a famous win over Australia. In O’Driscoll and O’Gara they have masses of experience, and in O’Brien and Heaslip two of the best loose forwards in the tournament. Wales are equally on a charge. They missed beating the Bokke by just 1 point, and have scored the second highest number of points after the All Blacks. They have a young team that looks to be fitter than anyone and brimming with confidence. This one should be a cracker. See you on Twitter, Irish pals.