South Africa, England and Ireland head into the final round of World Cup pool action top of their groups and seemingly set for the quarterfinals but they could all be flying home on Monday if things go against them this weekend.
Partly because of the bonus point rule, 13 more teams still have a chance to make the last eight, with a 14th, New Zealand, the only team already through and guaranteed to finish top of Pool A.
The availability of bonus points for winners and losers, plus teams finishing level being split by their head-to-head records (unless there are three teams, when points difference is used) has led to myriad qualification scenarios.
Holders South Africa get the ball rolling in Friday’s sole match against Samoa at North Shore, when a win or a draw will see them top Pool D and set them on course for probable knockout matches against Australia and then potentially New Zealand.
Wales look best placed to join them, which they will if they beat Fiji in Hamilton on Sunday, assuming Samoa do not pull off a huge upset and open up the group to all kinds of possibilities.
Saturday’s action kicks off with probably the most predictable match of the weekend in Nelson as twice-winners Australia face a Russian team who have already lost all three Pool C games of their World Cup debut.
A bonus point win for Australia looks a formality, which will mean the final match of the weekend, between Ireland and Italy in Dunedin, becomes pretty much a straight shoot-out.
A win or a draw for the Irish, who have won their last 15 games against Italy, would send them through top of the group and with a great draw giving them the opportunity to reach the semifinals for the first time.
Italy have never reached the quarterfinals and need to win to have any chance.
There is a remote possibility of Ireland losing narrowly and scoring four tries, thereby gaining two bonus points, which could send them through in second place but, having stunned the Wallabies to earn a potentially less difficult route through the knockout stages, they will not want to give that up.
“There was a great high after the Australia game and it set a standard and put us in a good position but if we’re looking back thinking we’re great because we beat Australia we’ll probably be on the first flight home on Monday,” said Ireland flanker Shane Jennings.
France look well placed to finish second in Pool A and move into the “European” side of the draw as they face Tonga in Wellington.
Assuming the All Blacks dispatch Canada on Sunday, also in Wellington, the only way France could miss out is if Tonga beat them, gained a bonus point and prevented the French from getting one.
That would put France into a quarterfinal against the winners of Pool A, likely to be England, but by no means certain to be.
‘Stage is set’
The 2003 winners and 2007 runners-up can sew up top spot by beating or drawing with Scotland in Auckland on Saturday but if they lose to their neighbours, they could be in trouble.
It will be the 129th edition of the oldest match in rugby but the first to be played on neutral ground.
“The stage is set for what I am sure will be an occasion worthy of everything this fixture means to both countries and their supporters,” said Scotland coach Andy Robinson, who faced Scotland as a player and coach when wearing his England colours.
Argentina are likely to beat Georgia in Palmerston North on Sunday and probably with a bonus point. That would mean Scotland would have had to beat England and deny them a bonus point — or gain a bonus point themselves to have a chance.
England could lose and still progress but it would probably send them off to face New Zealand in the quarterfinals with a potential semifinal against Australia or South Africa beyond that, which would severely dent their chances of becoming the first country to reach three successive finals. — Reuters
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