JON CARDINELLI takes a closer look at the seven big pool matches that will shape the World Cup quarter-final lineup in Japan.
Last week, a panel featuring World Cup-winners John Smit and Butch James were asked who would win the tournament in Japan. Both agreed that the current Springbok side has a good chance of succeeding where the 2011 and 2015 teams failed.
Smit believes that the Boks will progress to the final and face England. The former Bok captain suggested that New Zealand may beat South Africa in Yokohama next week, but may fail to qualify for the decider itself.
There may be a few other surprises en route to the playoffs, though. History tells us to expect the unexpected at tournaments like the World Cup.
Based on the strength and form of the sides mentioned below, one would expect Ireland, New Zealand, England and Wales to top their respective groups. It would come as a shock if Scotland, South Africa and Australia didn’t all progress to the next round.
POOL A: IRELAND vs SCOTLAND
The fixture between the Celtic giants in Yokohama on 22 September is likely to determine which team tops Pool A and faces the runners-up of Pool B. Most teams will be looking to avoid facing New Zealand – who are gunning for a third-consecutive title – for as long as possible.
POOL A: JAPAN vs SCOTLAND
Remember what happened in 2002, when South Korea and Japan hosted the Fifa World Cup? The local support was fantastic and lifted the home teams to inspired performances.
Japan should not be underestimated. Playing at home, they should be favourites to beat Russia and even Samoa. And with the crowd behind them in the final game of the pool stage in Yokohama, they may fancy their chances against Scotland.
POOL B: NEW ZEALAND vs SOUTH AFRICA
The Boks have shown that they can compete against the All Blacks in recent fixtures. They will take heart from the win in New Zealand last season as well as the draw they secured in Wellington two months ago.
A win against the All Blacks in the opening game of the World Cup would set the Boks up for a top-place finish in their pool and possibly an ‘easier’ quarter-final against Scotland or Japan.
It will be interesting to see how the All Blacks react if they lose their first pool match. That result will in all likelihood set them on a collision course with Ireland in the playoffs.
POOL C: FRANCE vs ARGENTINA
This is a potential knockout match. The loser of this fixture may well finish third in the pool and fail to progress to the next round.
Who knows what France will produce in Japan? They travelled to New Zealand under a cloud eight years ago, and lost to Tonga in the pool stage. And yet they still managed to progress to the final.
Argentina are coming off a long season, with many of their players involved in a successful yet gruelling Vodacom Super Rugby campaign with the Jaguares. They have the individuals to hurt France, but will have to lift their performance at the set pieces to come through this contest with a win.
POOL C: ENGLAND vs ARGENTINA
This fixture in Tokyo will mark England’s third of the campaign after facing Tonga and USA. They will be favourites to secure a result against Argentina that will guarantee their spot in the playoffs.
Argentina, on the other hand, may be searching for a win to keep their hopes of qualifying for the next round alive. This promises to be a fierce scrap and will reveal whether England have what it takes to go far in this tournament.
POOL C: ENGLAND vs FRANCE
This could be another potential knockout game. If one or both of these sides lose to Argentina in the early rounds, they may head into this final pool clash needing a win in order to qualify for the playoffs.
There will be plenty to play for regardless. Even if England, for example, beat Argentina in the earlier match, they may need to down France in order to secure a top-place finish in the pool.
The winners of Pool C will face the runners-up of Pool D, and England may prefer to play a struggling Australia than a resurgent Wales in a knockout fixture.
POOL D: AUSTRALIA vs WALES
Can Wales replicate their Six Nations form on the World Cup stage? One would expect the Dragons to beat the likes of Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay. The outcome of the Wales-Australia match in Tokyo on 29 September – a clash that will determine which team tops Pool D – is harder to predict.
If the Wallabies top this group, they will go on to face the runners-up of Pool C. They may also avoid the All Blacks until a possible meeting in the final – provided that New Zealand beats South Africa in the pool phase and remains on that side of the draw.
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