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23 Sep 2011 00:00
The end of pool play is in sight and the battles now are for who plays whom in the quarterfinals. Ireland upset the applecart by beating Australia and if the remaining matches go the way of the form book the quarterfinals and semi finals will separate the Tri-Nations sides from the Six Nations sides.
That should ensure a southern hemisphere v northern hemisphere final, which has been the case at every World Cup bar the one on these shores in 1995.
A grand win by South Africa over Fiji has not changed matters in the greater scheme of things, although it has given the defending champions a glimpse of the Promised Land, where they play a game based on passing instead of kicking.
The fact that the Springboks now look destined to play Australia in the quarterfinals is largely irrelevant, for the draw always placed them on a much rockier road to the final than that of 2007.
What last Saturday’s 15-6 win for Ireland showed is that the Wallabies are a long way from the finished product trumpeted by some critics on the back of the Super Rugby trophy being clinched by the Reds. Quade Cooper, their most effective attacking weapon, was subjected to a harrowing bombardment of high kicks by the Irish halfbacks and he was found wanting.
Those with long memories may recall that the great Jonah Lomu was also less fearsome going backwards than he was going forwards. The lesson the Boks need to learn is that Australian teams have traditionally tried to make their opponents buy into their way of playing. That is to say they like to keep ball in hand and avoid the big set pieces.
Ireland refused to play the Australian version of the game: the Boks need to do the same.
Between now and then they have a final pool match against Samoa at North Harbour Stadium. There was a time when this fixture was expected to be the decider for who topped Pool D and some suggested that the Boks might throw the game to avoid Australia in the next round. But Samoa lost to Wales in pool play, which makes that piece of skulduggery unlikely.
In fact, South Africa might fail to qualify at all if they lose to Samoa, with the Pacific Islanders joined in the quarterfinals by Wales.
The greater likelihood is that South Africa will indeed go through unbeaten, with Samoa being pipped by Wales on the basis of having lost to them in pool play. That would mean the two quarterfinals in Wellington would be South Africa v Australia and Ireland v Wales. In pools A and B nothing is set in stone and there is even the scandalous possibility that New Zealand might throw a match to aid their progress to the final.
The much anticipated clash between the All Blacks and France this weekend will decide who tops Pool A. The winner will play England, Scotland or Argentina in the quarterfinals, but would then need to overcome either Australia or South Africa to reach the final.
The loser, on the other hand, will play England, Scotland or Argentina in the quarterfinals, and then the winner of Ireland/Wales in the semis.
The irony here is that France have knocked New Zealand out of two World Cups and if they lose in pool play this Saturday the possibility opens up of a New Zealand/France final. Which, of course, was what happened the last time the World Cup final was played in Auckland, a quarter of a century ago. However, if New Zealand decided to tactically underperform this weekend it might be a case of losing a battle to win the war.
Passionate travelling supporters notwithstanding, few believe that either of the qualifiers from Pool B will progress beyond the quarterfinals.
The first weekend saw England scrape home 13-9 against an Argentina side that did everything but win the game. It was not pretty to watch and it was hard to believe that the Jonny Wilkinson, who won the World Cup in 2003, was the same man who missed goals by 10m on either side and shovelled hospital passes to his inside centre.
Argentina will be a super power within the next decade, thanks to their inclusion in the Tri-Nations from next year, but right now they are rebuilding and may suffer the ignominy of failing to progress from pool play. Scotland battled to beat Romania, but they may have enough firepower to beat the Pumas in Wellington on Sunday to go through as cannon fodder for either France or the All Blacks.
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