This is when things get serious. Just as the pool stages illustrate the chasm underneath world rugby’s elite, so too do the knockouts advertise the competitiveness within those ranks.
None of the quarterfinals are easy to predict, giving neutral viewers a weekend of competitive action at the very least. Until now, the narrative has been about fine-tuning, rotation and avoiding the All Blacks. That all ends on Saturday: it’s time to play some rugby.
England vs Australia
Right now, you have to think Australia coach Michael Cheika is thinking up the best way to sock England in the mouth. He knows his best chance lies in hitting fast and without warning.
The English, after all, have not had a chance to battle-harden themselves and could just be there for the taking in the early minutes.
Thanks to Typhoon Habidis, Eddie Jones was denied the opportunity to grind out his kinks against a top-eight side in France.
His captain, Owen Farrell, has been surprisingly out of form and Jones has been forced to decide whether to continue to play him at 12 behind George Ford or risk him at fly half — as was the plan for the final pool game.
None of their previous pool matches raised any alarms. But they didn’t inspire either and England are yet to prove they’re as good as they think they are.
Australia, by contrast, have been error prone and sloppy, but the signs of life are there. Wales very nearly felt the sting of that dynamism and there’s a sense that the Wallabies, as underwhelming as they have been over the past year, have the ability to strike a surprise blow.
The Mail & Guardian says: England are the obvious favourites for this one but they might just find themselves weighed down by that tag. Australia, meanwhile, are mostly unencumbered by expectation and Cheika is free to throw a few curveballs in. The Wallabies might just sneak this.
New Zealand vs Ireland
Ireland’s brief jaunt at the top of the World Rugby rankings feels like a distant memory at this point. Since entering the tournament at No 1, they’ve since been kicked down to fourth and have been replaced by the perennial occupiers of the top spot.
New Zealand are back where they belong but that will do little to dismiss the annoying cloud of doubt hovering over them.
They were given last weekend off by Typhoon Habidis and the opening game against the Springboks represents the only showing of what this side can do outside first gear. We know the All Blacks are not at their best, whether they’re still the best is more open-ended.
Remember too that few teams have been as good as the Kiwi’s 2016 outfit, who the Irish beat to end a world-record streak in Chicago. Having recorded another win last year, the green bogey is the obvious talking point ahead of this match.
Of course as far as archival yolks go, few are as cumbersome as Ireland’s inability to win a quarterfinal. Their historic loss to Japan has set up this fixture and not made breaking the milestone any easier.
That game aside, Ireland have since been in no mood to mess around and dispatched Scotland beforehand in ruthless fashion. When Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are on song this team has a ruthless dimension (the latter was absent in the Brave Blossoms game).
The M&G says: Expect the Irish to try to stifle the All Blacks’ supreme running game and turn the match into a grind, a mindset they excel at like no other. When a team has Beauden Barrett in their ranks, that will never be easy, however. It won’t be straightforward, but right now favour resides with New Zealand.
Wales vs France
Wales know how to get it done. That’s a bigger compliment than it sounds.
Whether it’s blocking an Aussie comeback or surviving a Fijian scare, coach Warren Gatland seems to always have his compass resolutely pointed towards the finish line.
He has his on-field vessel and captain Alun Wyn Jones to thank for that. The lock continues to lead from the front and his tackles embody the Welsh ability to break down play and turn the game into a scrap.
Meanwhile, wing Josh Adams has added a prettier facet to the campaign as he continues his impressive rise in world rugby. The 24-year-old has four tries already and two more will break the Welsh record for a single tournament. He has far loftier ambitions, however, and has set his sights on reaching the eight club — current members are Jonah Lomu, Bryan Habana and Julian Savea.
We can expect Adams to get chances. Expectations are pointless though when looking at this French team.
You never know what you’re going to get from Les Bleus. They’re capable of stringing together some gorgeous rugby but too often the team folds in on itself and lies down. And identical scorelines of 23-21 against Argentina and Tonga didn’t do anything to dissuade anyone of that notion ahead of a big game.
The M&G says: It’s hard to look beyond Wales for this one. Sure, France always have the capacity to shock but their opponents on this day will be too well-drilled up front to enable that threat.