So after a pulsating pool stages that saw a little bit of everything, just eight teams remain with each side knowing they are just three victories away from sporting immortality. However as the tournament reaches the knockout stages there is no room for error for those looking to be crowned World Champions.
Wales v South Africa
Without doubt the most eagerly-anticipated of the quarter-final ties as a battle-hardened Welsh side come up against a resurgent Springboks team. Following their shock defeat to Japan in their opening match of the tournament, Heyneke Meyer’s team bounced back to record three comfortable victories against Samoa, Scotland and USA to top Pool B and move confidently into the next stage of the tournament. The performances of the likes of Damien de Allende, Lood de Jager and Bryan Habana have been crucial in seeing the South Africans recover from that dismal start to put themselves right back in contention for the Webb Ellis Trophy. However they come up against a Wales team that have come through the so-called ‘Group of Death’ and fell agonisingly short of defeating Australia last week to top their group. After winning their first three games, defeat to the Wallabies would have hurt Warren Gatland’s side and will arguably make them even more determined to replicate their achievement of four years ago in reaching a World Cup semi-final. Decimated by injuries amongst the backs, the Welsh have performed remarkably well to make it this far but with players such as Alun Wyn Jones, Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton in their ranks you can guarantee they will not be satisfied just getting out of the pool stages. A tough match to call, with both teams having solid packs, the difference may come from the half-backs with South Africa once again putting their faith in the experience of Fourie Du Preez and the youthful exuberance and promise of Handre Pollard. A World Cup winner in 2007, Du Preez may not be the force of old but he remains one of the most intelligent scrum-halves in world rugby and he will be crucial in guiding Pollard through his first World Cup Quarter-final. For Wales, Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar have proved to be a perfect partnership with both players starring so far. Following Rhys Webb’s injury on the eve of the tournament, many tipped Wales to struggle but Davies has excelled from no.9 with his quick-thinking and sharpness leading to him scoring four tries so far in the tournament and with Dan Biggar in the best form of his career, South Africa will need to be at their defensive best to stop the Welsh half-backs. A one-score game likely to be won by the side that holds their nerve.
New Zealand v France
Deja-vu? New Zealand and France face up for the third consecutive World Cup in a rematch of the 2011 final won narrowly by the All Blacks. However it is the match four years earlier that provides the real sub-plot to a historic Rugby World Cup rivalry. 2007, Cardiff. New Zealand strut through their group and are backed by many to go and win the competition. World Cup hosts, France – fresh from an embarrassing opening defeat to Argentina – stumble through to the Quarters where many don’t give them a cat in hells chance of turning over the All Blacks. What followed was arguably the All Black’s darkest moment as a French team inspired by the young Thierry Dusautoir launch a sterling comeback to knock out the favourites and march through to the semi-finals. 2015, same venue, same match. Same outcome? In many ways the similarities between 2007 are striking. A New Zealand team comfortably top a group where they have yet to been tested. A French team who must bounce back from a demoralising pool stage defeat. The All Blacks however are reigning world champions, and where in 2007 the pressure of 20 years weighed down a world-class side, in 2015 a team that some claim to be the greatest All Blacks side in history will look to lay to wrest the ghosts of 2007. With legendary figures such as Dan Carter and captain Richie McCaw set to bow out at the end of the tournament, an All Blacks team containing world stars such as Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read and Julian Savea will not lack for motivation. However having squeezed past a determined Argentina in their opening Pool match, Steve Hansen’s side have produced several error-strewn performances that teams at this stage of the tournament will punish. For France, a solid start set them up for a titanic clash against Six Nations rivals Ireland. After an even first-half, an Ireland side who saw key players Sexton, O’Connell and O’Mahony depart with injuries stepped it up a gear and went on to win in comprehensive fashion. Under Phillipe Saint-Andre, France have struggled but do remain the most unpredictable of sides. A team including players like Dusautoir, Picamoles and Fofana, on their day France can probably beat any side in the world but you sense that with New Zealand likely to step it up a few gears from the pool stages, history will not repeat itself.
Argentina v Ireland
An intriguing quarter-final. Probably the most predictable quarter-final given the two sides’ respective Pools, and before the tournament you may have struggled to find many people backing the Pumas. How things change. An Ireland team still bearing the scars from a physical encounter with France, come up against an Argentina side that – after giving the world champions a scare – have gradually improved with each game at this tournament. For Ireland, four from four in their pool, was just what coach Joe Schmidt ordered. Yet with injuries to Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony, along with the suspension of Sean O’Brien, the Irish are without three of their best players at just the wrong time. For Paul O’Connell in particular, this match will be hard to watch. Ruled out of the rest of the tournament alongside O’Mahony, the former British and Irish Lions captain has played his last international having decided to retire from test rugby at the end of this year’s tournament. A fourth World Cup, and playing in a side that provided him with his best opportunity to win the trophy, O’Connell’s injury was a cruel twist of fate and a sad way to see one of the games greats bow out. For Argentina, confidence is high after a strong finish to the pool stages and having had the recent experience of competing regularly with the southern hemisphere giants in the Rugby Championship, this is a team that cannot be written off. Marshalled superbly by the impressive Nicolas Sanchez at fly-half, the South Americans seem to have finally found a no.10 capable of stepping out of the shadow of the great Felipe Contepomi, and with attacking talents such as Juan Imhoff and Juan Martin Hernandez outside him to go with a typically strong pack, Ireland can expect a tough battle. With their own playmaker Jonny Sexton having his own injury concerns to go along with the other key players missing, Argentina may not get a better opportunity to make it to the semi-finals, and a cup upset looks on the cards.
Australia v Scotland
The final quarter-final sees without doubt the best team in the tournament so far, Australia, come up against a Scottish side who squeezed through a competitive group with a nail-biting victory over Samoa last week. Having made it out of the ‘pool of death’ with a 100% record, Australia are looking like the side to beat this year. With Bernard Foley pulling the strings behind a forward pack that (uncharacteristically for the Aussies) have been stealing the attention from the backs, Micheal Cheika’s side come into this match with seemingly very few weaknesses. After following up their emphatic victory over the hosts with a backs-to-the-wall defensive effort against the Welsh – a match which saw them incredibly hold out for nearly ten minutes with just 13 men as Wales pounded their try-line – the Wallabies have shown an ominous characteristic of winning matches in different ways. All this means that Vern Cotter’s Scotland come into the match as clear underdogs. Having seen Japan shock the Springboks early on, some Scottish fans were hopeful that they could replicate that result against the South Africans and with it in all likelihood top the group. However after comfortable victories over the Japanese and Americans set them up nicely for a tilt at the two-time World champions, Scotland’s naivety was shown once again as they went down to an improving Springboks side. After battling past Samoa in nervous fashion, this game in many ways represents a shot in the dark for a Scotland side still struggling to compete at the very top level. With Australia missing Folau and Pocock, there is hope for the Scots but I anticipate a plucky effort from the Scots ultimately seeing Australia win comfortably.