Predicting the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals

By Ollie Hall

Knockout rugby is upon us and I, for one, can’t wait. All of these games should be highly entertaining with a high standard of rugby throughout (I can’t promise this for the England game I’m afraid). 

Here is a preview of each team and a prediction for each game.

Wales vs Argentina 

Both teams may be feeling a bit lucky that they’re playing each other, considering the opposition they could have faced.

Wales have been much improved this tournament, winning all four group games and putting together one of their best performances in years in a 40-6 win over Australia. Jac Morgan is blossoming into a superstar player and while the likes of Gareth Davies and Will Rowlands have picked up some form.

On the other hand, Argentina has been up and down this tournament. An implosion against England in the opener meant they lost the game despite having an extra man for the whole game after Tom Curry’s red card. Despite this they recovered well to win their remaining games, beating Japan in their decisive final pool fixture in one of the best games of the tournament so far.

However, despite the impressive bounce-back from Michael Cheika’s side, Wales have a heap of momentum and are my prediction to win.

Wales have a heap of momentum and are my prediction to win

Ireland vs New Zealand

 Ireland has been the most impressive team this tournament. Their highly coordinated and intricate attacking plays alongside an impregnable defence have turned them into an unstoppable green machine. This was emphasised in their thumping win over Scotland, where the Scottish attack just had no answers to get past the Irish defence, and a hard-fought win over South Africa which saw them top their group. Furthermore, an injury scare for starting wing Mack Hansen has been avoided meaning that besides the loss of James Ryan, Ireland come into the game at full strength.

As for New Zealand, they come into this fixture in the unlikely position of underdog. For at least the entire professional era of rugby, the All Blacks have had this air of invincibility around them. Few teams, in any sport, can match their record when it comes to wins and for most teams a win against New Zealand is a rarity and an occasion. It’s fair to say though that this aura has been lost under Ian Foster’s tenure but by no means does it mean they are not still an exceptional team. Damian Mackenzie has been seriously impressive in group games, they still have one of the best players in the world in Ardie Savea and they won this year’s Rugby Championship.

Ireland come into this match on a seventeen-game win streak and the last time these two teams played each other Ireland won the series 2-1 away in New Zealand. Combined with their impressive performances so far, Ireland likely come into the contest as favourites to win. However, Ireland has famously never made it past the quarterfinals at a World Cup and I predict this curse to strike again. New Zealand to win!

The All Blacks have had this air of invincibility around them

England vs Fiji

Ahh Fiji, everyone’s second favourite team. Some of the beloved flair and outrageous offloads of past Fijian teams has been lost in this year’s team but it has been replaced by a more pragmatic approach and greater game control. This has allowed them to dominate teams and control games, as seen in the Australia match, which I think has been the key to success in this year’s World Cup. Of course, it also helps to have arguably the player of the tournament so far, Josua Tuisova, as well as other world-class players such as La Rochelle’s Levani Botia.

As for England, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they top the charts for kicks per game with 33.8, which comes as a result of their kick and set-piece-centric game plan under Head Coach Steve Borthwick. This has brought England four wins out of four in the group stage although few of the wins were convincing. However, it’s hard not to see some progression in the past four games; for one they are actually winning games and two, there has been greater fluidity in what was a pretty stagnant attack before the World Cup. The first twenty minutes against Samoa I feel showed a glimpse of an effective attacking structure, which set up Ollie Chessum’s try. Yes, the next sixty minutes were not fun to watch but the first twenty should give some optimism going into this Sunday.

Even as an England supporter, I want Fiji to win this game. A semi-final would be massive to the island nation and would hopefully provide a kick up the backside for World Rugby to invest more in lower-ranked teams, something they are still failing to do, which is killing the growth of the sport. I digress though and for the prediction, my gut tells me that England will manage to scrape a win and progress.

France vs South Africa

The masked Dupont era beckons. 

Antoine Dupont, who fractured his cheekbone three weeks ago, has been cleared by his surgeon and team doctors to play. The addition of a masked Dupont only strengthens France’s chances as we all know face masks improve performance- just Google masked Lebron James. Even without their talisman, France have a plethora of other world-class players such as Gregory Aldritt, Damian Penaud and  Matthieu Jalibert who has stepped up in Romain Ntamack’s absence. As a result, France has been formidable in the group stages even in Dupont’s absence, comfortably beating each team.

There has been greater fluidity in what was a pretty stagnant England attack before the World Cup.

The hosts typically control games with their high collision dominance rate and ability to create line breaks, however this will be put to the test against the reigning world champions. The South African’s defence is their biggest strength, with their strangely controversial seven-one-bench split allowing their forwards to be more aggressive in their rush defence. This will help to thwart France’s free-flowing attack.

However, to beat France, South Africa will need to keep their turnover rate, which is the joint highest, down as this will just provide more platforms for France to attack from. Furthermore, their kicking woes, which cost them the win against Ireland, will also need to be improved; expect Handre Pollard to replace Manie Libbok for this game.

With or without Antoine Dupont, I think France will win this game and get one step closer to a first World Cup victory.

(Stats used as per Opta via planetrugby.com)

Image: Nick Seymour

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