Rugby World Cup: Australia and Ireland light up pool stage finale
England may be out, but the knockout stages should deliver yet more stupendous rugby
It's been a month of glorious rugby – unless you're English – and the group stage of the World Cup ended in suitably stupendous style with a series of matches that showcased stunning defence, bloodcurdling ferocity and frenetic attack.
The defence belonged to Australia, whose 13 men held out Wales' 15 for nearly ten minutes at Twickenham on Saturday, to win Group A, the 'group of death', which did for England's World Cup ambitions.
The ferocity came in Cardiff as France – shamefully unrecognisable from the glorious 'flair' sides of the 1980s – tried to bludgeon Ireland into defeat. They failed, though they've caused some serious injury concerns to the Irish, whose 24-9 win means they finish top of Pool D.
The attack was seen in Newcastle as Scotland and Samoa served up a seven-try thriller. The Scots emerged triumphant, holding off the Samoans 36-33, to finish runners-up in Pool B at the expense of Japan.
The Japanese brought down the curtain on the group stage on Sunday evening with a 28-18 win over the USA, and became the first team in World Cup history that has won three group games and failed to progress to the quarter-finals. By finishing third, Japan at least avoid the rigmarole of having to qualify for the 2019 tournament – which they will host.
Similarly, Georgia's 17-16 defeat of Namibia and Italy's defeat of Romania means they too won't need to qualify in four years' hence. And nor will England, who swatted aside Uruguay 60-3 on Saturday night in a display that didn't do much to lift the hosts' spirits.
The quarter-finals line up:
South Africa v Wales, Twickenham, Saturday October 17, 4pm
Wales will be underdogs against the Springboks, although of the three Southern Hemisphere powerhouses South Africa are the most beatable. A foot injury sustained by wing Liam Williams against Australia means he becomes the sixth member of Gatland's original World Cup squad to be sidelined by injury. South Africa will be confident their pack has the beating of the Welsh eight, while out wide Wales are running out of options because of their appalling casualty list.
New Zealand v France, Millennium Stadium, Saturday October 17, 8pm
France were appalling against Ireland. Negative, one-dimensional and guilty of countless unforced errors, their much-vaunted pack was also shown to be fallible. Much will be made of unexpected French victories in previous World Cups against the All Blacks (1999 and 2007), but the truth is this current generation is so shorn of creative guile the champions are unlikely to suffer a third shock.
Ireland v Argentina. Millennium Stadium, Sunday October 18, 1pm
Ireland were wondrous in the intensity of their performance against France, but the victory came at a heavy price. Flanker Peter O'Mahony is out of the World Cup with knee ligament damage, talismanic lock Paul O'Connell is out with a horrific hamstring injury and fly-half Jonathan Sexton is undergoing treatment for a groin injury that forced him off after 25 minutes. The encouraging news for Ireland, however, is that in replacements Ian Madigan and Iain Henderson, the Irish have quality players. Argentina, however, are not to be underestimated and beat Ireland in the 1999 and 2007 World Cups
Australia v Scotland, Twickenham, Sunday October 18, 4pm
Brilliant in attack in the record 33-13 win over England, the Wallabies showed some astonishing defensive mettle in holding off the Welsh on Saturday. It's this all-round strength that make Australia favourites in many people's eyes to win an unprecedented third World Cup (to go with their victories in 1991 and 1999). Scotland will enjoy going into Sunday's game as rank outsiders but having suffered no serious injuries in the win over Samoa, the Scots also have a good balance to their squad in attack and defence.