October 7, 2011
Can Richie McCaw ride out his injury woes and steer the All Blacks into the Rugby World Cup semi-finals? © Getty Images
If you have grown a little tired of talk about fines and suspensions at this year's Rugby World Cup then rest assured that the punishment will be of a more physical nature this weekend.
The knock-out stages get underway with four intriguing quarter-final clashes that, with maybe one exception, look too close to call. England face France and New Zealand tackle Argentina on successive days in Auckland but the real fireworks look destined to go off in Wellington where Wales and Ireland go head-to-head before Australia and South Africa lock horns.
The Celts kick things off at the Wellington Regional Stadium on Saturday in arguably the most exciting clash of the weekend. Ireland have been superb at times over the last few weeks with a well-deserved victory over Australia propelling them to the top of Pool C. Their reward for that historic victory was a date with an equally impressive Wales side that narrowly missed claiming a famous scalp of their own in an epic clash with South Africa.
The latest meeting of these two sides, which comes just a few short months after Wales' controversial Six Nations triumph in Cardiff, will boast a host of in-form and game-changing talent with the back-row battle alone set to be worth the price of admission. The powerful trio of blindside Stephen Ferris, openside Sean O'Brien and No.8 Jamie Heaslip have been the heart of everything good about the Irish but they are unlikely to get everything their own way with their Welsh counterparts Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau also in sensational form. The head to head between O'Brien and Warburton will go a long way to deciding the game and cementing the reputation of two of the game's rising stars. There appears little between the sides and with a World Cup final appearance a very achievable goal for both of these sides, do not expect the game to be lacking intensity. In such scenarios, discipline and an ability to take the chances presented are the keys to success so do not be surprised if the boot decides a narrow contest with veteran Ronan O'Gara poised to play a leading role.
There will be little time to catch your breath before England and France enter Eden Park for their last eight clash. England enter the game undefeated having topped Pool B but have not won rave reviews in the process with their off-field exploits attracting more attention. France have also had their troubles with reports of a player revolt and two pool stage defeats - the last a shocking upset at the hands of Tonga - and their hopes appear to be hanging by a thread. England out-muscled their cross-Channel rivals in their Six Nations clash at Twickenham earlier this year and will surely be favourites to triumph once again but surely France can't sink any lower?
England's Jonny Wilkinson continues in the fly-half role despite an alarming lack of form with the boot but at least his rival for the playmaker position, Toby Flood, can at least claim to being a little nearer usurping his team-mate. Flood will feature at inside centre as a replacement for the injured Mike Tindall in a bold move by manager Martin Johnson who in doing so has ignored the claims of players more accustomed and familiar to the role. The headline-grabbing change potentially offers England another attacking dimension as long as they have the ball - cue another bruising battle. Expect improvement from a French side desperate to avoid yet more misery and ridicule but not enough to derail England's campaign.
The focus switches hemisphere on Sunday with a mouth-watering clash between the Tri-Nations title holders and the reigning World Cup champions. South Africa have weathered a bruising pool campaign that was punctuated with hard-fought victories over Wales and Samoa and can lay claim to a superb defensive record - the best ever in World Cup history. The signs look good as they continue their quest to become the first side to claim back-to-back World Cup triumphs but standing in their way are an Australian side that may have their number. Victories both home and away against the Springboks in this year's Tri-Nations suggest the Springboks have plenty to fear.
The World Cup has taken its toll on both sides but South Africa will still field the most experienced side ever assembled in international rugby. The occasion will not faze the likes of captain John Smit, lock Victor Matfield, scrum-half Fourie du Preez and winger Bryan Habana who are among many able to draw on the successes of four years ago. But as valuable as Smit's experience and leadership, question marks still remain about his selection ahead of the Bismarck du Plessis who has rarely put a foot or a throw wrong. Expect him to make an entrance sooner rather than later if the game is in the balance.
One player whose selection triggers no such debate is Heinrich Brussow. It is easy to forget the rampaging openside has not long returned to the Test match stage after two years of injury woe but you wouldn't know it. He has had no trouble rediscovering his ability to mix it with the best but will have to be on his game with David Pocock fit and firing in the Wallabies' ranks. A close contest on paper is unlikely to prove much different in the flesh and you sense that whoever comes through it will struggle to peak again just a week later in the semi-finals. But who will have to tackle that problem? South Africa's muscle big match temperament should give them a priceless edge.
Hosts New Zealand will bring down the curtain on the weekend with their clash against Argentina. Stripped of Dan Carter, the man that was supposed to steer them to a fairytale victory, and with captain Richie McCaw struggling with a foot injury there is clearly cause for concern among home fans. But the All Blacks are far from a one-man or even two-and team and while Colin Slade may not ever be a player to rival Carter he obviously has the faith of an unrivalled coaching trio that know far better than any outside observer. The selection of Sonny Bill Williams on the wing may have raised some eyebrows but any side that makes room for his undoubted talents will be stronger as a result.
Argentina have reverted to the starting line-up that accounted for Scotland in dramatic style earlier this month but it will take more than a final flourish to get past their latest opponents. While never lacking in heart, Argentina do not have the all round game to play on the All Blacks' insecurities and they are in danger of being swept aside by a team determined to settle the nerves of a nation.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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