A Game of Two Halves

October 7, 2011

So, 4 weeks and 40 games later we’re left with the quarter finalists that were pretty easily predicted nearly three years ago when the draw was made. All that’s left are the 7 games that matter (+ the 3rd/4th play-off).

The top 20 ranked teams qualified for the tournament, and the top 8 ranked teams have made the quarter finals. Scotland (ranked 9) and Italy (ranked 11) are gone as are Tonga (ranked 13) who, like Samoa and Fiji in previous World Cups, managed to beat one of the top-ranked teams but unfortunately miss out after losing to Canada (ranked 12).

However, the 8 teams that progress are not in the order that we all expected. Thanks to the Ireland vs Australia result, the All Blacks (ranked 1) vs Argentina (ranked 8) match is the only quarter final game where there is a clear favourite. The other three could all go either way. History would suggest that the semi-finals will be All Blacks vs South Africa and England vs Ireland (no team who has lost a match in pool play has ever won the World Cup).

But, rather than try and predict the result of this weekend’s games I thought it would be interesting to look a couple of weeks ahead and anticipate some potential final match-ups:

All Blacks vs France

This would be a repeat of the 1987 final, also played at Eden Park.

We all thought we’d seen off the French threat after beating them earlier in the tournament, but as the 1999 All Blacks discovered the French are not beaten at a World Cup until the whistle has blown (and their fans are whistling their disapproval at the team as they walk off).

It’s not right, somehow, that France has not yet won a World Cup (especially since they’ve twice knocked us out). But I don’t think this French team is the one to change that. Indeed, were it not for the bonus point system they’d already be home and we’d be contemplating an England vs Tonga quarter final in Auckland on Saturday night (how good would that have been!)

Still, should they make it that far themselves, I think the All Blacks would probably choose the French last of the four possible opponents for the final.

Australia vs England

The worst of all possible combinations and painful to even contemplate.

I was living in the UK during the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and controversially chose to support England in the final after Australia knocked out the All Blacks in the semi-final. An old friend from New Zealand, who was staying with us at the time and watched the game with me that Sunday morning local time, struggled to understand my logic. But my preference then was that I’d rather England win their first World Cup than have Australia win their third.

If they were to meet again this time around, I don’t know that I could even bring myself to watch.

So … vive la France and go Bokke!

South Africa vs Wales

The pool match between these two teams was one of the games of the tournament so far for me. The atmosphere at the game was great – two passionate and vocal groups of supporters. To be honest, I don’t even think the Welsh in attendance expected their team to compete, but in the end they could have … should have … won.

And the Wayne Barnes fan club grows ever bigger.

The Welsh are under-rated by just about everybody – neutrals will no doubt end up supporting the Irish this weekend even though they won’t be the underdogs this time around. But, all of a sudden they find themselves in the quarter-finals, on the easy side of the draw and they might just sneak under the radar all the way to the final, where anything can happen.

All Blacks vs Ireland

I’d love to see this. I think we all would … for several reasons. Not the least because the Irish have never beaten the All Blacks!

We were in the crowd on 17 November 2001 when one Richard McCaw made his international debut vs Ireland at Lansdowne Road in Dublin. He was the man of the match. I can’t think of a more appropriate opponent for him to face in what would be the biggest game, and (hopefully) pinnacle of his career.

Hopefully he can hang in there over the next couple of weeks. It will either be a great night for us all to celebrate, or as George Greegan so eloquently put it in the closing minutes of the 2003 semi-final “four more years, boys!”.