Quarterfinals are a necessary evil. Teams that have fought their way out of pool play have earned the right to dream, but on Monday four of them will be going home. The best thing that can be said about this World Cup is that it is impossible to say which four that will be.
It has been a tournament where the underdog has had a fair share of the limelight. Who could have predicted that Japan would win three pool matches and yet not make the last eight? Who knew that the Springboks would be the first victims of the Brave Blossoms, yet would still qualify at the top of the group?
Conundrums like those underline the fact that anything can happen from here on in. There is no reason on earth why Scotland cannot beat Australia, even if the bookies give them no chance.
Ireland lost to Argentina the last time they played them in a World Cup, Wales beat South Africa this time last year and France have lowered the New Zealand colours twice at the tournament – once in the 1999 semifinal and again in the 2007 quarterfinal.
The Springboks have much going for them right now. First, they know what it’s like to lose and do not want to go there again. Second, the Welsh side they face has been seriously denuded of its best players. Third, seven members of the match day squad of 23 know what it is like to lift the Webb Ellis trophy.
On the downside, however, the Bok squad features just four players of colour, a new low for the season. All will be forgiven if the team continues to win, of course, but if they should happen to lose, the politicians will have a field day.
There are solid reasons to believe they will win, however. In addition to Wales losing so much talent to injury, they have endured two wars on successive Saturdays, against England and Australia.
In the first match they fought back from behind to win, but last week’s encounter exposed a soft underbelly.
The match turned on a 15-minute period when, with Australia down to 13 men at one stage, Wales eschewed penalty kicks at goal in an attempt to score a try. They failed and the match ended as a contest right there.
It put a spotlight on the essence of the game as it is played north and south of the equator. Put simply, southern hemisphere sides know their way to the try line.
It is germane to point out that, in losing to Japan, the Springboks scored four tries. The bonus point they secured from that, together with an extra one for finishing within seven points, secured them first place in the pool ahead of Scotland. Only Argentina scored more points than South Africa in pool play.
Statistics are largely meaningless in knockout encounters, however, and coach Heyneke Meyer would happily grab a score of 3-0 against Wales as long as it saw his team through to the semifinals.
Meyer has grasped the nettle and left Victor Matfield out of the 23 for Saturday. The official line is that Matfield removed himself from contention by complaining of a tight hamstring after Tuesday’s training session, but the likelihood is that he jumped before he was pushed.
Matfield’s replacement, Lood de Jager, has probably been the best Springbok on display in the four games they have played so far. De Jager has been injured much of the year, but he has come right at the correct time and he may yet have as big a role to play in this World Cup as Matfield did in the 2007 version.
One of the unintended consequences of the injuries to his captain and vice-captain is that Meyer has forced Fourie du Preez into the hot seat by stealth. Unlike Jean de Villiers and Matfield, Du Preez is not accustomed to spending hours under the television arc lights at press conferences. He has always preferred to do his talking on the field.
But Du Preez has been conspicuous in the games against Scotland and the USA for the way he has controlled the tempo of the game by keeping a lid on the emotions of his players. This is a side of Du Preez we have not seen during the course of his stellar career and, much like the form of De Jager, it has manifested at exactly the right time.
The downside of Du Preez the player is that age has removed a little pace from his passing game, and his decision-making around when to kick and when to pass is no longer infallible. There is still a tendency in this Springbok team to kick first and ask questions later and it will return to bite them.
Another Achilles heel is the atavistic need to seek contact when in possession. Duane Vermeulen is a marvellous player, but he is so much better when passing through contact instead of merely setting up another ruck. Wales are an effective side at the breakdowns, thanks to the likes of Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau. They are far less effective falling back to defend the moving ball.
It surely cannot be lost on both players and management that their two World Cup-winning wings, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, are lethal weapons again. The pace and wit of the players inside Habana and Pietersen should give a huge advantage to the Boks, but only if the inevitable dictum of “keep it tight” can be overcome.
South Africa must trust their defensive structure to freeze out Wales in general play, and they must trust the talent in their back line to make the most of the possession that comes their way.