Cape Town – All three traditional southern hemisphere superpowers, greedily boasting six of seven World Cups thus far between them, seem reasonably smart money to storm into the semi-finals of the latest edition.
If the “been there, done that” principle is employed as a yardstick, then New Zealand (1987 and 2011 winners), South Africa (1995 and 2007) and Australia (1991 and 1999) should only be cranking up their silverware quests irresistibly when the quarter-finals are contested over the course of Saturday and Sunday.
Bear in mind that England, the only northern-climes side to have won the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003, are early goners from the tournament, and for that reason the prospect of a team from our side of the equator going all the way once more only seems more feasible.
Still, you place carts before horses at your peril – especially at a World Cup where a true minnow has stunned an established superpower in the pool phase -- and on paper the “north” have as much chance of grabbing the grand prize at this juncture given that four of their representatives tantalisingly tackle a quartet of southern rivals in the last eight.
The full line-up: South Africa v Wales, Twickenham, Saturday, 17:00; New Zealand v France, Millennium Stadium, Saturday, 21:00; Argentina v Ireland, Millennium Stadium, Sunday, 14:00; Australia v Scotland, Twickenham, Sunday, 17:00.
Here are my reasonably long-range thoughts, ahead of match-day line-ups being announced, on how the “QFs” will pan out ...
South Africa v Wales
At the risk of partiality, it is very hard to overlook a 27-2 historical advantage in wins in the Springboks’ favour (one draw), isn’t it? Yes, the Welsh won the last clash (12-6 in Cardiff) but that was right at the tail of the Bok end-of-year tour in 2014, when hearts and minds are invariably “on the beach” after another gruelling year’s activity for SA rugby players. This game comes at relatively neutral Twickenham, which should not lack for noisy South African expatriate presence. The Welsh RWC injury woes are also well documented, whereas the Boks are in the novel position of potentially having all 31 squad members fit for possible selection. Heyneke Meyer’s charges are back playing quite compelling “knockout rugby” again after their strategic dog’s breakfast in Brighton, and it is not as though they are labouring for tries from wider berths on the park, either. The Welsh scrum didn’t look too clever against Australia, just one area where SA could cash in if they bring their A-game. A general trend in modern times is for Wales to give the Boks plenty of bother along the way in big meetings ... but usually not to be able to actually close the deal in their favour. Status quo this weekend?
Tip: SA win
New Zealand v France
Nobody needs reminding that France are a hoodoo team for the All Blacks at World Cups, albeit that NZ won their last RWC encounter – the not unimportant matter of the 2011 final. Of course the ever-moody French could be dangerous ... particularly as they are often at their best when they have just lost a match (as happened against Ireland on Sunday). But they also have their attacking limitations, as evidenced by failure to cross the whitewash against the Irish. As for the All Blacks, I suspect the world’s long-time No 1 power and defending RWC champions will be bemused, as much as anything, by suggestions that they are a receding force. Their “crime”, it seems, is to have played a hatful of minnows in the closing stages of their pool duties, when it must be difficult to get into fullest competitive mindset. There has been some alarming sloppiness on their part, for sure. But they must also be itching to go up against more premier-tier foes again. Apart from the fact that big pack players like Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick are ominously due to shift up a notch performance-wise, the All Blacks remain the planet’s most complete team, by my book. That not enough for you?
Tip: NZ win
Argentina v Ireland
This could be a cracker, with the sides arguably brought even closer together by an unwelcome rash of injury problems that afflicted the Irish against France. Ireland losing their crusty Paul O’Connell in the second row is a bit like South Africa sacrificing their Eben Etzebeth as far as pure second-row “presence” is concerned. And yet the green-jerseyed marauders were all passion and purpose against the French, their forwards a blanket of supremacy and with seriously sharp poaching skills at the breakdown to match. One thing Argentina won’t lack is self-belief; they went toe to toe with the All Blacks for long periods of their tournament opener, and have subsequently played eye-catching, total rugby, if you like, in respective drubbings of Georgia, Tonga and Namibia. There could be tears in Puma eyes at the anthems, a bad omen for any opponents, and a testosterone-fuelled scrum charge. But when all is said and done, the Irish in northern conditions should have a wee drop too much for them ...
Tip: Ireland win
Australia v Scotland
The one thing the current Scots have under the coaching stewardship of Vern Cotter is a zesty brand of all-round rugby. It gives them a chance against the rampant Wallabies ... if not much more than that. Remember not to judge Scotland too harshly on their eventually clear-cut defeat to the Boks in Newcastle: at one point they were clawing their way back into the contest pretty earnestly – there were only seven points in it on the hour mark – and Cotter also didn’t play his fullest-strength combination, despite his protests to the contrary. Young flyhalf Finn Russell means a lot to their attack, though he still seemed impeded by injury in the narrow pool-ending triumph over Samoa. An extra week to this one could restore the No 10’s fullest sparkle. Australia were seriously impressive in their march through Pool A, and their defence with 13 men on the park against Wales was quite extraordinary (not to mention energy-sapping?). Unlike some pundits, however, I haven’t promoted them to my cup favourites yet; that’s still the preserve of the All Blacks. I am NOT tipping a Scottish upset ... but I do have a strange gut feel this could yet be a bit closer than some may imagine.
Tip: Australia win
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