RWC2015 Semi-Final Preview: Australia vs. Argentina

The second of the all Southern Hemisphere semi-finals is set to kick off early tomorrow morning and promises to be a tough match.

Australia will be looking to prove they deserve their spot, and Argentina will play like they have nothing to lose. We are in for one hell of a fight.

The pool of death turned out to be a misnomer – Australia beat one of the worst English World Cup squads ever assembled, and a Welsh team that lacked key players. Their performance last week against Scotland highlighted their inconsistency and lack of composure under pressure.

Craig Joubert notwithstanding, for a team that many picked to win the tournament, the Aussies are lucky to have made it this far in the competition.

In contrast, the Pumas are killing it. Despite being issued their quarter final ticket as soon as the country names for Pool C were pulled out of the hat, their performances against New Zealand and Ireland show that Argentina are a solid, attacking team that live by the adage that the best defence is a good offense.

Australia will go into the game as favourites, having only lost to Argentina once in the past 18 years. But they have every reason to be worried. Argentina’s innovative attacking play has seen them wrack up 222 points and 26 tries so far in this tournament – second only to New Zealand. They outclassed Ireland and arguably should have beaten the All Blacks. If the Aussies think that they can squeak by with the form that they showed against Scotland, then they have another thing coming.

Both sides will be fielding their best teams. Australia will be thankful that Israel Folau and David Pocock are fit enough to start. The pair were absent from the near miss against Scotland due to injuries obtained in their last pool match with Wales.

Pocock’s return will be a welcome boost to the team. The number 8 has dominated the breakdown in pool matches and is currently leading the tournament in turnovers. Argentina will need to work hard to restrict his influence on the game. Similarly, the inclusion of Folau will make Australia incredibly dangerous under the high ball. Midfield bombs have been used as a tactic frequently this World Cup and will no doubt play a part in the game tomorrow.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel Hourcade’s side will remain almost unchanged from the line-up that smashed Ireland. The only addition will be Marcelo Bosch at outside centre, who missed the quarter final after being cited for a dangerous tackle in the game against Namibia.

Two key players to watch for Argentina are fly half Nicolas Sanchez and inside centre Juan Martin Hernandez. Their passing in the midfield in the game against Ireland were responsible for setting up two of the tries, and Ireland struggled throughout the match to keep them contained.

The scrum matchup will be a very interesting prospect. A lot has already been discussed in the media about Mario Ledesma – former Argentine hooker and current Australian forwards coach – and his transformation of the Australian scrum. However the Aussie set piece showed weakness against Scotland, something that they won’t be able to get away with when engaged with one of the world’s best looseheads, Marcos Ayerza, and the rest of the Argentinian pack.

Australia will have to remain composed if they want to win. Their squad has the experience required, they have their best men on the field – realistically they should be able to get the job done. Hopefully they have been able to distance themselves from the close call against Scotland and the circus that has surrounded the controversial nature of the win.

Off the back of smashing Ireland – the Pumas have got to rate themselves. And the beauty of being the relatively new lads at the southern hemisphere rugby big boys table means they are not burdened by the pressure of expectation. They have gotten as far as they ever have, and it just takes one more win to reach the final.

Both teams will have to keep their cool, as all eyes will be on the ref to enforce as strictly as possible to make sure the right team makes it into the final. This might be especially difficult for Argentina, who have always been known for being a little bit scrappy. It would be sad if the outcome is decided by yellow cards rather than tries.

I predict that Australia will win by ten points but it will be a hard fought game punctuated by penalties. Just like the Cricket & Netball World Cups, it will be an Aussie vs. Kiwi final (with hopefully a different outcome than the other two tournaments).

As a bit of a side note, Argentina’s performance at this World Cup should serve as evidence to show that the way to turn good minnow teams into Championship contenders is to end their isolation and get them playing in regular tournaments against the best teams in the world.

In the decade from 2000 to 2010, the Pumas matched up against New Zealand only four times, now with their inclusion in The Rugby Championship, they get the chance to play against all of the titans of southern hemisphere rugby at least twice a year. There is little doubt that that the extra time playing top tier rugby has made a huge difference.

Given that they are a very young side, the future looks bright for Argentinian rugby and they will be a force to be reckoned with in another four years.

By Elisa Harris

RWC Semi-Final: All Blacks Player Ratings

In one of the most physical and brutal matches in RWC2015 so far, the All Blacks narrowly escaped a revenge-seeking South African side to make the World Cup Final for the second consecutive time.

No one was expecting anything less as the two long-time rivals threw every piece of flesh and bone at each other, the All Blacks claiming a 20-18 win.

The game echoed scenes at Ellis Park just months earlier when the All Blacks managed to steal a win in the Rugby Championship with a last minute try; this time, however, things were a lot more conventional.

While the performance wasn’t perfect, it was all that was needed and a win against any South African side should be viewed as a tremendous achievement.

Only missing two tackles the entire game, the All Blacks defended strongly for the full 80 minutes and South Africa never looked like scoring a try.

It’s hard to judge individual performances in what was a solid team effort, but below are the All Blacks’ player ratings for the game.

Joe Moody – 7/10

Moody had a tough task ahead of him – stepping in to replace the injured Wyatt Crockett. Moody, who was flown over from New Zealand last week for the game against France, had already found his feet with 60 minutes of game time in the quarter-final, though a start against South Africa would be the real test. He was quick to the breakdown, cleared the ball well and held up his end of the scrum. One penalty against him when the All Blacks were reduced to seven but aside from that a very complete performance.

Dane Coles – 8/10

Not a bad outing for Coles. Certainly not as involved as he usually is, but still produced clinical lineout throwing and always in the right place at the right time. Unfortunate not to get to a few more grubbers but his tenacity around the park was always at 100%.

Owen Franks – 7/10

Solid at the breakdown, supporting players well and a few decent hit-ups. Also held up the scrum extremely well, especially when Kaino was put in the sin bin for 10 minutes.

Brodie Retallick – 8/10

As always, Retallick was throwing himself at everything. Some great runs, a few monstrous hits, and a couple of lineout turnovers. Combined with Whitelock, the pair made things very difficult for the Springboks and survived the onslaught that came late in the game.

Sam Whitelock – 8/10

Like Retallick, Whitelock was clinical. A few lineouts won off South Africa and extremely effective on defense.

Jerome Kaino – 7/10

Despite Kaino’s dubious yellow card, he still performed to a very high standard. Great work rate, some big tackles, storming runs, and of course scoring one of the All Blacks two tries.

Richie McCaw – 7/10

We could just say ‘work rate’ and leave it there. McCaw was quick to the breakdown as always, disrupting the flow for South Africa and proving heavy in the tackles. Another solid performance from the captain.

Kieran Read – 6/10

Once again, Read struggled to perform for the All Blacks. A few handling errors and some unnecessary penalties around the maul cost him and his teammates some valuable territory and possession. Still supporting his players well and getting to the breakdown quickly but needs to work on his execution and decision making.

Aaron Smith – 8/10

Hard to fault Smith in this game. His passing was superb, his decision making better and his leading helped organise both the forwards and the backline. His kicking was on point, with the exception of one side-footer that came from a turnover.

Dan Carter – 9/10

Another solid game for the kiwi legend. For the first time in 8 years, Dan will start in a World Cup Final (knock on wood!). Carter was solid kicking all but one of his penalties/conversions. A cooly slotted drop-goal could be construed as the difference in the end and once again his passing was sublime.

Julian Savea – 7/10

Hard for ‘the bus’ to really get going in this one, but he attacked the line with speed and added some physicality when the All Blacks needed it most.

Ma’a Nonu – 7/10

Nonu managed to keep relatively busy despite not getting a lot of running ball. He attacked the line and made a few key tackles when the Springboks had half a chance on breakaways. He showed his world class decision making setting up Barrett for the All Blacks second in the corner. A solid performance before coming off after 52 minutes for Sonny-Bill Williams.

Conrad Smith – 7/10

Like Nonu, Smith found it hard to get good running ball, however his tackling can never be faulted and he chased all of the kicks to apply pressure on the South African backs.

Nehe Milner-Skudder – 6/10

Nehe wasn’t able to use his usual razzle-dazzle skills to get around the Springbok defense. He wasn’t great under the high-ball either losing two key kicks to the much more experienced Brian Habana. He almost had a half break in the second half and still managed to make a few metres despite the brick wall in front of him. Disappointing to see him go off injured (again!) but hopefully he will be back for next weeks final.

Ben Smith – 9/10

Ben Smith was flawless. Sensational under the high ball, clinical when it came to making tackles and running the ball, at the line, with speed. A well deserved Man of the Match performance.

Substitutes

Kevin Mealamu – 7/10

Hard for the hooker to get going after coming on with 13 minutes to play; 13 minutes where the All Blacks didn’t get a lot of ball. Still, he made some good tackles while on the pitch and was quick to clear the breakdown.

Ben Franks – 7/10

Like Mealamu, Franks only made it on to the pitch in the final ten. Along with the rest of the subs, he managed to add a fresh dose of intensity which saw the All Blacks defense hold until the 80th.

Charlie Faumuina – 7/10

As potent as always, coming in the 52 minute, Faumuina kept the scrum solid and made sure the defense stuck strong.

Sam Cane – 6/10

Unfortunately, Cane blew his opportunity to make a mark on the game. Knocking the ball on twice almost allowed South Africa to get back in it, if only the All Blacks didn’t step it up during scrum time.

Beauden Barrett – 8/10

Coming on early after Milner-Skudder limped off with an injury in the 49th minute, Barrett made sure he got the job done. He had some good touches with the ball, made some sound tackles and scored the try that would seal it for the All Blacks.

Sonny-Bill Williams – 8/10

Sonny-Bill Williams continues to prove his value at the World Cup and made some great runs to bruise the Springboks a little more this morning. A few half breaks, unable to get his hands free for the offload, but he worked hard and made sure he was in the right place at the right time.

By Sam Hewat

The Great Rugby Divide

I’ve kept quiet this World Cup. As my fellow columnists have shared their thoughts about the rugby, I have bitten my tongue, my lip, my knuckles and any other bodily protrusion that would prevent me from speaking out.

But now, that time is over. Now, the gloves are off. Now… I’ve run out of metaphors.

Firstly, a disclaimer: I am an Englishman who is married to a Scottish woman, living in America, working in an international organization, with an office directly across from a Kiwi Rugby savant.

I’m part of a multi-national community populated with a decent number of Aussies, Kiwi’s and Springboks. It is quite possible I am so confused that I have no idea what I am talking about.

The event that has been catalytic in my silence ending is the elimination of all four of the Home Nations, specifically at the hands of southern hemisphere opposition. There is a trend, a pattern here, and I decided to turn my unbiased and purely objective focus towards working out why the South has triumphed so comprehensively over the North.

I made some observations that only now, the world is ready to hear.

Team Strengths

It seems that northern team’s general gameplan involves moving bodies into collisions and trying to smash through, whilst southern teams move the ball into space and run round.

Whilst northern teams may appear to be brutish, unsophisticated and unintelligent in their tactics, this is simply a facade. The rationale is quite simple: historically, as northern nations, we’ve a long track record of fighting the French on the field of war. Alas, the European Union has put paid to what was many nations favorite pastime, so this pleasurable privilege has petered out in recent history.

The European Union has taken all the fun out of beating the French, and now the only way we can even come close is on the rugby field. Yes, we may forget that not every game is actually against the French, but that is simply because we’re gearing up for the real event, which is second only to Christmas as an annual highlight.

It seems, this World Cup, we got a bit carried away and maybe lost our focus a teensy-weensy bit.

Player Development

Northern nations are very developed culturally, and so have a vast number of sports that young people can choose from to participate in. This, of course, diminishes the pool of potential rugby stars that would come through our systems and excel in the game. This is the only explanation possible for the importing by northern nations of second-rate South Africans, Australians, Kiwi’s, Samoans, Tongans and Antarticans not good enough for their own countries.

It is, I promise you, nothing to do with a northern lack of skill, talent, flair, technique or coaching ability. However, this recent World Cup demonstrated that these players were, in fact, sleeper agents deployed by their nations of birth to disrupt the northern teams games. This is a well established fact and can be proved by the many reliable sources of information found on a Friday night in local drinking establishments scattered across Europe.

In-Game Strategy

One ‘friend’ commented that northern teams kick a lot and asked why. He cheekily commented on the lack of ability with the ball in hand and suggested that rejected soccer players had forgotten they had chosen to play another game entirely. I corrected him graciously, but firmly, and in between punches, informed him that it was obvious to learned gentlemen why this kicking strategy is the case.

When you live in a nation that sees the sun once a year, for four hours, and you live under perpetual cloud with what feels like eternal rain, then kicking is the only way you can move the ball downfield. Add in the marsh-like conditions of most pitches, and feral local children who steal anything spherical, and you can see why kicking long and high is desirable.

It is fine to compare these settings with the idyllic paradises of sunny, warm, pleasant southern hemisphere pitches, but just remember this – when you live in sub-arctic nations and have to wear multiple layers during the summer to keep alive, a positive by-product is that you never have to experience warm beer. Plus, we aren’t ever going to get killed by an octopus. Mainly because our wildlife isn’t really that wild.

So there you have it. Three reasons why the northern teams were cheated – I mean, defeated, by southern teams. Now, with my shrewd tactical analysis complete, I shall sit by the phone and wait for the inevitable England job offer…

By Anthony Hilder

RWC Semi-Final Preview: New Zealand vs South Africa

I’ve been tasked with previewing this round of the Rugby World Cup or as many have taken to calling it ‘The Rugby Championship 2.0.’

But instead of Southern Supremacy, these teams are battling for the title of Best In The World.

New Zealand are the defending champions, South Africa are the loud challengers. Whoever wins this game will have truly earned their spot in the Grand Final.

Here we will look at what each team needs to do to advance to the last game and key player match ups that will determine this epic Semi Final clash.

South Africa

What a team! Look at the names. Du Plessis. Burger. Habana. Staples of South African rugby, legends of the modern game.

This team is full of experience and old warriors ready for their final battle and they’ll be making damn sure that their last game doesn’t come this week.

South Africa haven’t played their best at times during this tournament. They were famously upset by Japan in their first game and were extremely lucky to slip past the Welsh in the quarter-finals.

While on paper their games against USA, Scotland and Samoa seemed one sided, they were physical match ups. They had to fight for every inch on many occasions and now they take on the current World Champions in New Zealand.

Much of South Africa’s game plan will likely focus on putting pressure on the younger All Blacks players. Halfback Foruie du Preez will be looking to dictate the pace with ball in hand-wear down the All Blacks forward pack and then will most likely target Milner-Skudder with box kicks with Habana/JP Pieterson in chase, testing the younger wings nerve under pressure.

Joe Moody has already stepped up in more ways than anyone has expected but will have to step it up another couple of notches when it comes to taking on Malherbe. Look for the large forward pack to harass the man with only 9 caps to his name, scanning for any little weakness in his scrimmaging.

South Africa need to play to their strengths. Their forward pack will have to put in their biggest game of the tournament, looking to capitalize on counter attacking after quick turnovers.

The All Blacks have a tendency to use some of their forwards in the backline often so South Africa will have to try and pick their moment and strike with turnovers.

The backline for the Boks will have to give this everything they have. South Africa and New Zealand are the only 2 teams in world rugby that constantly play it like an 80 minute game.

The second half and bench interchangers will be vital for South Africa because, as seen last week, the 2nd half is when the All Blacks go from a top rugby team to best on the planet.

This will be a tough, physical game for the Boks and no doubt that win or lose, it will take a toll on their bodies. The winner of this match still has to take on either Australia or Argentina in the Final next week which will be no small task.

If the All Blacks are Superman, then the Springboks are Batman. On paper, it looks like there will be one clear winner but if there is anyone who can stop New Zealand prematurely, its South Africa.

New Zealand

After the French Demolition last week, the World Champs set their sights on their long-time rivals, South Africa. The Boks are no walk over and a focused South Africa outfit can topple the best of teams.

New Zealand has had an interesting climb to this stage. After an under-whelming performance against fellow Semi-Finalists Argentina in Pool play, the current Champs then had a walk through against teams in a very one sided affair.

Their first real test came last week against France where we first caught a glimpse of an All Black side playing to win a World Cup.

New Zealand will have to be New Zealand. They need to strike early and hold the ball in hand. Steve Hansen is a master of using his reserves at the right time. The impact of people such as Sam Cane and Sonny Bill Williams can easily turn the tides of this match as seen last week against France.

As mentioned earlier, Joe Moody will have to really step it up against the fearsome forwards of South Africa.

He’s had a Stephen Donald like rise this World Cup – suddenly having pressure thrust upon him in a matter of weeks. He was extremely impressive last week against France and Steve Hansen wouldn’t have named him to start if he wasn’t confident that Moody can preform at this highest level.

Dan Carter has found some great form, putting many of his doubters to bed. His attacking has had some of his flair from ’05. His combination with the backline cannot be undersold.

The midfield combination of Nonu and Smith will have a tough task ahead. Jesse Kriel has risen to prominence on the world stage and is arguably one of the world’s best centres at this time.

Many people will be watching Nehe Milner-Skudder and how he preforms in a big match situation. He has jumped over ever hurdle that has been put in his way to date but now he is marking up arguably one of the best wingers in World Rugby with JP Pietersen.

Whitelock and Retallick are the best locking combo in the world and anyone who says otherwise is seriously misguided. These two men will have to be on point against a ferocious South Africa lineout and will have to be every bit as physical as their counterparts all with the knowledge that waiting for them on the South Africa bench is the legendary Victor Matfield.

Richie McCaw will go into battle once again with Schalk Burger. The two best openside flankers of the last 15 years will battle one last time, ending a rivalry that has spanned many Tri-Nations, Championships, Super Rugby and World Cup campaigns.

Both men will want to prove to each other who the real number one is because if there is any other number 7 in World Rugby that can come close to McCaw, its Burger.

Key Matchups

Richie McCaw vs Schalk Burger.

This will be a key matchup for the forwards. At this World Cup, Burger has the advantage over McCaw on paper. 2 tries, 20 more tackles, nearly 3 times the ball carries and over 100 more metre gained than McCaw. Richie, however, does lead Burger in turnovers won with 4-1. Both of these men will be looking to lead their forwards by example and will add an epic final chapter to this long rivalry.

Du Preez & Pollard vs Smith & Carter.

The battle of the halves combos will be vital. Both halfbacks will be looking to dictate the pace of how their side plays, both first-fives will be scanning the defensive line and looking to put their outside numbers into space. Very few halves have the chemistry that these 4 men have. They have subtleties to their game that are often over-looked. The game could be ‘make or break’ from these positions.

Savea vs Habana.

It’s the case of the veteran against the young buck. As far as physical match ups, this is probably as one sided as it gets. Saveas attacking stats put him above Habana but only just. However, it’s the defensive stats that make this match up interesting. Habana has made 3 times more tackles than Savea AND has a 100% tackle rate so far in this tournament. Can the smaller frame Habana take the wheels off the bus known as Julian Savea?

Prediction

I have every confidence that The All Blacks will win this battle before continuing on and beating Argentina in the Grand Final. It will be close. It will be physical. But I believe the All Blacks will come out on top by a margin of 8 points and under. Final score 28-21.

By Cameron Corban

RWC Quarter-Final Preview: Ireland vs. Argentina

Forget the All Blacks v France, this is the 2007 World Cup rematch that will determine the rest of the Rugby World Cup in 2015.

These two proud nations will once again do battle in an attempt to throw away the tag of ‘under performers’ and I truly believe that whoever walks away from this game as the victors will be the team to beat for the rest of the tournament.

As a massive Brian O’Driscoll fan, Ireland have always been a sentimental favourite rugby side of mine. One of my favourite sides to watch take on the All Blacks as a part of me would secretly be chuffed to see them upset the best in the world.

Ireland are very familiar with the quarter finals at the Rugby World Cup – they’ve been here five times in the past. Only twice have they not made it past the pool stages – once in 1999 where they lost a quarter final play-off match against none other than Argentina. They also failed to make it past the pool stages again in 2007 when they lost a critical match against…Argentina.

Seeing a pattern here?

Ireland have met Argentina fifteen times since their initial clash in 1990. Ireland have 10 victories over the Pumas but at the Rugby World Cup, Ireland and Argentina have met 3 different times. Argentina have won 2 of those 3 encounters.

Ireland have had arguably the harder run to this stage. Not only did they have to overcome a scrappy Italian side but they had to fight off a vicious French team which hit them hard.

The game against the French was a double edged sword for both teams – the winner would take on the in-form, physical style of Argentina, the loser would have to attempt to dethrone the current number one side New Zealand.

Now its just a matter of seeing which side of the sword will cut the least. The Irish go into this game with a lot stacked up against them. Their inspirational Captain Paul O’Connell had his legendary 108-test match career ended prematurely due to a severe hamstring injury picked up against the French. O’Connells loss cannot be understated – he’s a natural leader for the team and has captained them to Six Nations glory in both 2014 and 2015.

They are also without blindside flanker Peter O’Mahoney who was also injured and will miss the rest of the tournament. He joins Jared Payne on the Irish injury list.

Another Irish loose forward that will be missing this crucial game will be Sean O’Brien who copped a week long ban for punching one of the French forwards in their final pool game.

In all of this, there is a silver lining. Star first-five Johnny Sextons initial groin injury may not be as bad as first indicated. This will be great news as Sexton is on fire right now. His form is undeniable and he could potentially be the game winner for Ireland. If not, they have an extremely capable replacement in the form of Ian Madigan who had a great 60mins after Sexton went down with an injury against France.

As for the Pumas, they have come so close to going all the way in the past, but have fallen short.

In 2007, they narrowly missed the Grand Final, thrashing the host nation of France in the Bronze Medal match, coming third for their best finish ever.

Argentina are to Ireland what France are to New Zealand – World Cup Kryptonite. They have spoiled the World Cup hopes for Ireland twice in the three times they have clashed on the largest rugby stage in the world and could very well do it again.

Argentina have had a bit of a walk through to the quarter finals. They gave New Zealand a bit of a fright in the first game and since then have cruised past the rest of their pool, scoring over 160 points in 3 matches.

Being involved with the Four Nations has clearly improved their game and moulded this team into quite a force.

Argentina are currently playing the kind of rugby the All Blacks WANT to play. Aggressive. Physical. They hold the ball and dictate the pace of the game to how they want it.

Nicolas Sanchez is doing an amazing job right now when it comes to kicking. And that has always been the game plan in a sense for Argentina. Physical defence, a great kicker but slightly lacking in the attack department.

But then in 2012, the Pumas had a visit from none other than the World Cup winning Kiwi coach, Sir Graham Henry. Ted enjoyed a brief stint between 2011 and 2012 as a consultant for Argentina who really began to get the ball rolling with sharpening the Pumas attack. He changed their mind set to be more evasive and to keep the ball in hand. And its worked.

They’ve begun to offload a lot more with their running attack and its paid off in spades. Their wingers are actually seeing the ball. Santiago Cordero and his fellow winger Juan Imhoff at times look like some of the most dangerous men on the pitch with ball in hand.

The Pumas too will be missing an influential player with centre Marcelo Bosch receiving a week long ban for a lifting tackle in their last game against Namibia. Argentina have been pretty lucky so far this tournament, they’ve managed to avoid any major injuries in key positions which will enable them to name an extremely close to full strength side.

PREDICTIONS

My heart says Ireland. My head says Argentina. The Pumas will over power the Irish forward pack and dominate a very physical game. Irelands missing two flankers and now a lock and their captain. If this was last week before Irelands string of injuries, I would have given this to them but Argentina have improved too much over the last few years.

Pumas will take this 26-16.

One thing is for certain: These are two amazing teams and I’m confident that both of them have the tools to go all the way to the pinnacle of the rugby world.

By Cameron Corban

RWC Quarter-Final Preview: Australia vs. Scotland

The quarter-final stage is where the tournament really kicks off for me. Other than the teams who fought it out in the ‘Pool of Death’, the quarter-finals are the first real challenge that many of the dominant rugby nations will experience.

For the match between Australia and Scotland, their quarter-final face-off will be one to watch for sure.

On paper, Scotland’s pool play went as everyone expected, winning three of their four games with a few bonus points here and there. However, what they probably weren’t expecting was that the Japanese would do exactly the same; making their final match against Samoa a real do-or-die game.

By coming within a drop goal of missing out on the quarter-finals, the Scots will be looking for redemption in their match against Australia but are unlikely to come out with the win. Its not that the Scots will be doing anything ‘wrong,’ but it’s just that the Australians are doing so much ‘right.’

The Australian side are looking pretty slick at this stage and have become many peoples pick to take out the tournament altogether. With an almost backwards tournament, having their toughest challenges in pool play, and a relatively comfortable quarter and predicted semifinal, the Australians may as well book their hotel for the finals already.

Their form has been impressive to say the least and pose a real threat to any side they might encounter. A brilliant scrum, ability to win the turnover and a few playmakers here and there will give the Aussies confidence to go all the way.

The loose forward combination of Pocock and Hooper has been incredibly successful for the Australians, and Bernard Foley has been playing consistently out of his skin every game thus far. Combine this with the already fierce back line, packed with playmakers galore, anything short of a 14 point victory for the Wallabies will be surprising.

However, recent news that Pocock and Israel Folau are out for this weekends clash mean that the Aussies are without two of their key men.

For Pocock, Ben McCalman comes in as the replacement. While McCalman doesn’t possess the world class rucking abilities of Pocock, he’s still a handy threat on the field having scored two tries in the three games he’s played at this World Cup. Not a bad effort for a player who was coming off the bench, replacing one of the best in the world, and doing it all in the ‘Pool of Death.’

Still, the Wallabies will miss their star back-rower and the loss of Israel Folau out wide leaves a hole in the Australian backline.

However, this is a do-or-die match, and the Wallabies don’t need to win it by 30+. With the forward pack still remaining as strong as it has been throughout the pool stages, and with Foley and Giteau playing the tournament’s of their lives, its hard seeing Aussie being challenged significantly in this one.

Yes, the Scots have the ability to topple the Aussies, and on a good day they might just do that. But all things equal, they will most likely fall short.

If the Wallabies can do the business, that puts them just one win away from a potential World Cup final against the All Blacks, a circumstance that has never occurred in rugby history.

Considering the blood between the two teams this year – Australia winning the Rugby Championship and defeating the All Blacks in Sydney – it could be one of the best sporting events of the year!

By Guy Cowan

RWC Quarter-Final: All Blacks Player Ratings

The All Blacks churned out an energetic and inspired performance this morning to claim the biggest playoff win in Rugby World Cup history.

The 62-13 defeat over France was their biggest win at the 2015 tournament, and alleviated all fears that the All Blacks haven’t been performing at their best.

Clinical execution, strong discipline and unparalleled skill left the French scratching their heads at every moment of the game.

While some experts might be hesitant to dish out the all elusive 10/10, some deserved it tonight. Below are the player ratings for all 23 players.

1. Wyatt Crockett – 5/10

Unfortunately, Crockett was the only player not to stamp his mark on the game. A few errors at the breakdown as well as giving away an easy penalty right in front of the sticks caused Steve Hansen to sub the tighthead prop after just 28 minutes.

2. Dane Coles – 8/10

Once again, Coles was electric. Quick hands out wide, commitment to the ruck and the ability to break tackles. A brilliant turnover that led to Savea’s third try and the heart of a champion. Having the pacey hooker out wide has proved very successful for the All Blacks.

3. Owen Franks – 8/10

Franks stepped up. First to the breakdown, cleaning out the French every time and allowing Aaron Smith more time and more clean ball. Also proved heavy in the scrum and made a few darts from the ruck.

4. Brodie Retallick – 9/10

What a performance. The young lock has continued to cement himself as the best in the world for his position. A beautiful first try off the back of a chargedown, a few key turnovers in the lineout as well as key support play for the rest of the forwards. Outstanding.

5. Sam Whitelock – 8/10

Whitelock, like Retallick, was everywhere. Solid in the lineouts, good on the kickoffs and a crucial player at the breakdown. Hard to fault his performance at all.

6. Jerome Kaino – 9/10

Kaino had a blinder. A try just after half-time capped off a brilliant game all round. He ran well, supported the forwards and won a few key turnovers.

7. Richie McCaw – 8/10

Richie once again lead from the front. Strong with ball in hand, disrupting the ruck at every opportunity and allowing his backs more time with the ball.

8. Kieran Read – 7/10

Not a bad outing from Kieran at all. A few dropped balls and miss-timed lineouts worked against him, but a great try under the sticks and great support play showed that he still has some left in the tank.

9. Aaron Smith – 9/10

Smith was unlucky not to grab a try this morning, but his performance was just as rewarding. Quick, fast ball to the backs, solid decision making and silky feet meant he set up more than just a few tries. Maybe not making the final pass, but he was involved in all but two of the All Blacks tries.

10. Dan Carter – 10/10

Carter was at his absolute best. Taking on the line, breaking tackles, offloading the ball and kicking well. 7 from 9 on conversions and kicking for touch with purpose. Carter is back.

11. Julian Savea – 10/10

Savea was unbelievable. The young winger scored another hattrick, his second of the tournament, and was duly named Man of the Match. He scored one of the tries of the tournament, if not of World Cup history and was everywhere on the park. Absolutely flawless.

12. Ma’a Nonu – 8/10

Nonu is looking as dangerous as ever. He broke the first tackle on almost every one of his runs. Unlucky not to score a try at the end but a good effort setting up his teammates, and his kicking game continues to improve.

13. Conrad Smith – 7/10

Classic Smith. Wasn’t a standout on the scoresheet, but was everywhere on the park. Strong running, good ball retention and the ability to give his outside backs some more space.

14. Nehe Milner-Skudder – 8/10

Electric as always. Nehe scored a scintillating try, further demonstrating his unparalleled speed and skill as he danced his way to the try line. Unlucky to come off at half-time with an injury, but looking dangerous and will be back for South Africa next weekend.

15. Ben Smith – 7/10

Smith was solid under the high ball. Something the All Blacks have struggled with over the course of the tournament. He supported well and always made sure he was in the right place at the right time. An error at the beginning which almost cost a try, and one or two positional errors means he doesn’t quite get a higher score.

Substitutes

16. Kevin Mealamu – 7/10

Not a bad showing from old Kev. Strong off the bench, good lineout throwing and some impressive tackles made him the perfect substitute for Coles.

17. Joe Moody – 9/10

Moody was phenomenal. Coming on after just 28 minutes, the young Cantab, flown over just days prior, played 50 minutes of unbelievable rugby. An amazing offload to Kerr-Barlow for an All Blacks try proved his talent, and his strength at the breakdown was nothing short of amazing.

18. Charlie Faumuina – 8/10

Faumuina was faultless. Coming on at the 51 minute mark, Faumuina made his presence known. A few big hits, strong physical presence at the breakdown, and a beautiful run and pass to set up Kieran Read under the sticks.

19. Victor Vito – 7/10

We only got to see 15 minutes of Vito, but his performance was solid. A few good tackles and some good runs.

20. Sam Cane – 8/10

McCaw’s worthy replacement. Cane came on and continued to apply the pressure at the breakdown. A few key tackles and a turnover that led to an All Blacks try.

21. Tawera Kerr-Barlow – 9/10

Substituting Aaron Smith is a hard task. Couple that with the questions surrounding the All Blacks depth at halfback, and Kerr-Barlow had a challenge on his hands. However, he slotted in perfectly. Scoring two tries and getting to the breakdown with speed, Kerr-Barlow proved his worth as an All Black.

22. Beaudan Barrett – 7/10

Not a terrible performance by Barrett, but certainly not his best. Two kicks that failed to gain many metres when the All Blacks were pinned back in their own 22 made things tough. Solid defense however and good support play.

23. Sonny-Bill Williams – 8/10

SBW at his finest. A beautiful offload to Nonu on a set play led to Kerr-Barlow’s first and another offload to Ben Smith which almost resulted in a try on the wing. Some sound tackling as well proves that Sonny-Bill is a real threat off the bench.

Team Rating – 9

A complete team performance that saw many questions answered. If the All Blacks can churn out another showing like that against South Africa, and carry that into the final, its hard seeing anyone being able to stand in their way.

By Sam Hewat

RWC Quarter-Final Preview: New Zealand vs. France

In 1999, the All Blacks looked set to progress all the way to their second Rugby World Cup title.

Victories over Tonga and England in the first two rounds followed by a 101-3 thumping of Italy in the final game of pool play sent the All Blacks into the knockout stages with all form in hand.

Then, in the semi-finals, the French crushed the hopes of a nation by defeating the All Blacks 43-31.

Gone was the hope, once again, that the All Blacks would win the Rugby World Cup for the second time in their history.

Then, in 2007, the All Blacks looked unstoppable. They gave away just four tries in all of pool play. They averaged 77 points a game and finished with a points differential of +274.

It was, as the punters put it, a ‘sure thing.’

And who should the All Blacks meet in the quarter-finals? The same team that had forced its foot at their throat just four years prior.

The scene was set. Millennium Stadium. 72,000 fans. Redemption.

Enter Wayne Barnes. And a game that will be forever etched in rugby history.

That forward pass. That yellow card. That crucial penalty.

France had knocked out the All Blacks again, 20-18.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the hoodoo struck again. The All Blacks would face France in the Rugby World Cup final, in New Zealand, for the second time in history.

This time, however, they made no mistake.

8-7. Thank you Tony Woodcock; rise Sir Beaver.

It was but a mere rebuttal to a French onslaught that had lasted almost 25 years.

Now, as if the rugby gods had written their own piece of poetry, the All Blacks and French are to meet again in the quarter-finals.

Once again, Millennium Stadium. Once again, 72,000. Once again, it’s do-or-die.

But this time, the All Blacks have more to prove than ever.

Yes, they defeated the French in 2011 to claim rugby’s most coveted prize, but this means something else.

Northern Hemisphere. Cardiff. Millennium. 2007. It’s got to mean more.

This time, the All Blacks will slaughter the French. There is no doubt.

Unlike the past, the media has played right into the All Blacks hands. It has been a non-stop barrage of questions, accusations and assumptions about the All Blacks ability to rid the voodoo and rectify the loss of 2007. This is exactly what they need.

In 2011, Sir Graham Henry filled the All Blacks dressing room with newspaper cutouts right before the final, of what the media had been saying about 2007. It fired the boys up. And it’ll do the same thing again.

The players have been stiff all week. Dismissing the media bait and focusing on the important things. It is the notion that 2007 will repeat itself that will make the All Blacks more determined than ever.

Cast your mind back to August this year. The All Blacks lost to the Wallabies in Sydney and the response was devastating. Even New Zealand’s own media lost belief in the All Blacks only months out from the RWC. But a week later, the All Blacks demolished the Wallabies in one of the most complete performances of the past four years. They thrive on the challenge. They yearn to prove people wrong.

But what about some more tangible reasons.

Well experience is a start.

The All Blacks boast close to ten returning players from the 2011 World Cup. Mix that with the explosive talent of rising stars such as Aaron Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Smith, and you have the perfect recipe. Its something France lacks and it will prove the difference.

As far as form goes, the All Blacks haven’t played great rugby, yet they still hold the most tries scored so far at this World Cup. The fact that they have grinded out convincing wins despite not being at their peak is a testament to just how good this side is.

Couple that with the fact that All Blacks haven’t lost a World Cup match since 2007 means they are still on the top of their game.

As for France, an uncomfortably tight win against Italy in pool play as well as a heavy loss to Ireland mean they are far from being an in-form team.

Now, with the news that the players have sacked head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, things keep going from bad to worse. The locker room is a mess, they lack leadership and cohesion and those are things you need on your side when you face a team like the All Blacks.

Defense is another key area.

The All Blacks missed only four tackles in their pool game against Georgia. An enormous achievement considering the size and strength of the Georgians.

France, on the other hand, are having to make a lot more tackles (an average of 124 per game compared to the All Blacks 88) and average 16 missed tackles a game.

Considering the plethora of attacking prowess in the All Black backline, this will make things especially tough for the French, and it is hard to see their defense lasting the full 80.

Now, all stats and facts aside. All media speculation and betting odds forgotten. This is France. And this is a side that has an unparalleled sense of belief, pride and determination. There is no doubt that they will test the All Blacks to the very limit.

However, this time round, there is just too much on the All Blacks side. All the talent in the squad points towards a complete blowout.

Dan Carter is still fully fit and on his way to winning his first Rugby World Cup, after he missed 2007 and 2011 with injury. Richie, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Mealamu and Woodcock are all hanging up the boots and this is the way they want to go out.

The talent, the heart, the camaraderie, the passion.

This is our time again.

Prediction

All Blacks 43 France 10.

By Sam Hewat

RWC Quarter-Final Preview: South Africa vs. Wales

Wales v South Africa is the first of the four titanic struggles this weekend that are the RWC quarter finals.

These two teams are no strangers to each other, having met on 30 occasions since their first encounter in 1906.

However, the wins column is very much in favour of South Africa, having won 27 of those games, Wales winning 2 and the teams drawing one.

This weekend’s quarter final is anything but a foregone conclusion though, despite the devastating injury toll that Wales has taken, they have shown they can rally together and win tough, tight matches.

Let’s take a look at what both teams need to do to win, and also have a look at the key players and their roles.

Wales

The Breakdown.

The Welsh forward pack have shown they are capable of matching it with some of the biggest and best. They also have some of the biggest and best, with players like Captain Sam Warburton and veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones. They will need to continue to be competitive in the tight again this weekend, as it is no secret that South Africa will try to bully them up front.

In saying that, the Welsh are one of the best teams at this years RWC when it comes to turning the ball over at breakdowns, sitting 2nd in the tournament and with 12 more turnovers than South Africa. If they can continue their fast approach at the breakdowns, they can get in and out of the contact area’s before the big South Africans can arrive.

Kicking.

The Welsh First-Five, Dan Biggar, has been in sensational form this tournament. Most recognisable for his peculiar goal kicking technique, don’t let his “Macarena” fool you, he has been controlling his team tactically all tournament.

He has had several combinations outside him due to the injuries but he still ignites his big wingers, giving them space and time to be at their best.

His goal kicking has been radar like too, kicking at 94% and putting over 12 penalties. If South Africa give away penalties in range, money’s on Biggar to knock it over.

Gareth Davies.

What can be said about this man? Becoming a professional Rugby player at the age of 17, he clearly showed talent at a young age. He had only 4 test matches under his belt before been thrown into the mix at this year’s RWC due to the injury to first choice halfback, Rhys Webb.

He took this opportunity with both hands and is one of the best halfback’s at the tournament so far. He has carried his team at times with his energetic running and snipping around the rucks. This has lead to 7 clean breaks, 9 defenders beaten and 4 tries, one of which was the winning try against England.

These stats easily clear him as the best attacking halfback at the tournament and if he can bring this fantastic attacking game to the quarter final, it will put Wales in a great position to tire out the bigger South African team.

Gareth Davies of Wales gets past Bryan Habana of South Africa - Photo Courtesy of Huw Evans Picture Agency
Gareth Davies of Wales gets past Bryan Habana of South Africa – Photo Courtesy of Huw Evans Picture Agency

South Africa

Tall Timber.

With the injury to Victor Matfield, it almost comes as a blessing in disguise as it allows Coach Heyneke Meyer to play his 2 best locks in Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jagger. The only word that can describe these 2 is dominant.

Eben Etzebeth at 2.04m and 117kg has really exerted his physical dominance at this tournament, he has carried the ball 18 times over the gain line and these carries have often been in scrappy tight situations.

His fellow locking partner, Lood de Jagger has been immense at this year’s RWC. The statistics columns almost always feature his name and he is almost always the player getting his team on the front foot, whether it is from a huge tackle (he’s made the 2nd most in the tournament with 50) or a big carry (he’s made 21 over the gain line) you can count on him to step up. His work rate is just enormous; he seems to pop up all over the field.

Wales will have to shut these 2 down. They have shown they can do this, David Pocock almost had no impact on the game last week, however Australia still won the contest. This will be a key area of the game.

Attacking Rugby.

You can put to bed any myth that South Africa plays “boring 10 man rugby”, this team have been brilliant at this tournament, igniting their backline and beating defenders. They have carried the ball third most in the tournament, and almost half of those carries are over the gain line, a far cry from a team that plays territory over possession.

It is vital that the Welsh make their tackles, this may seem obvious but South Africa feed off line breaks and beating defenders, they have made 38 line breaks so far, 3rd in the tournament and from these types of carriers they finish off in brilliant fashion, scoring 23 tries, only 2 behind the All Blacks.

Bryan Habana is top try scorer in the tournament with 5, and a hat trick to go with it. He now is equal with the great Jonah Lomu for most tries scored in RWC history, 15.

If South Africa can continue this style of rugby, then Wales will have to look to control possession to negate these attacking threats.

Midfield Battle.

This will be one of the biggest games of Jamie Robert’s career. He has a wealth of experience boasting more test caps than the other 3 midfield players put together, with 73 games for Wales he will need to be the calming influence to his younger centre pairing, Tyler Morgan who at 20yrs old only has 2 test caps. If Robert’s can use this experience to manipulate the young South African pairing, Wales then have a great chance at unleashing their far bigger wing combination.

The South African midfield however, is almost as raw as Morgan. Damien De Allende and Jesse Kriel have just 18 caps between them, but have been devastating when given half a yard of space. Both players love to take the ball into contact, often beating defenders and freeing up the fast outside backs.

It is a clash of youth versus experience and is a key component of this quarter-final matchup.

Fourie du Preez spreading the ball for South Africa in their matchup against the All Blacks this year - Photo Courtesy of Rugby Banter Page
Fourie du Preez spreading the ball for South Africa in their matchup against the All Blacks this year – Photo Courtesy of Rugby Banter Page

Key Matchup

Gareth Davies vs Fourie du Preez.

This might seem like an odd matchup to look into, however the halfbacks have been vital in this RWC, they are the key to the game, either slowing the pace down or speeding it up.

Gareth Davies as I alluded to before loves to run. He sparks the Welsh attack with his unpredictability and brilliant step.

Du Preez on the other hand, is far more measured; he reads the game brilliantly and can dictate the pace of his sides attack. He also has a great box kick which takes a lot of pressure off his First-Five. Look for him to use this at key times in the game, often to push the Welsh back and make them bring the ball forward into the big South African forward pack.

With a heavy injury toll and some tough, physical matches it is easy to write off Wales. But we have seen in the past injuries often bring a team closer together; they fight for each other and thrive off the underdog status. If Wales can do this then this game is going to be an epic battle.

On the other hand, the early loss to Japan hurt the South African’s, they are a very proud nation and I think that that was the huge wakeup call the team needed. Since that loss they have been absolutely brilliantly and you would be hard pressed to see this juggernaut being stopped so early in the knock-out stages.

Prediction:

South Africa to win this win by a relatively slim margin 26-17.

Let the knockout Rugby begin!

By Matt Jenkins

Should All Blacks Fans Be Worried?

Despite the All Blacks’ 43-10 victory over Georgia yesterday morning, which secured them a place in the RWC quarterfinals, it was another unconvincing performance from a side that has failed to produce at this tournament so far.

A grinding win against a physical and tough Georgian side, with very little open play and plenty of stoppages, have allowed some to shift the blame away from the Kiwis.

But three games in, we keep beating the same drum.

Press conference after press conference we are told the All Blacks will step up in the next game, the errors will decrease, the continuity will flow and we’ll score more points.

Press conference after press conference we give credit to a ‘tough opposition that really turned up to play.’

And its beginning to cause concern.

It doesn’t matter how well a ‘minnow’ team steps up, when you’re the best in the world by a country mile and you have the most talent, arguably in World Cup history, you don’t scrape through for a win.

Sure, you might make some mistakes, look a bit rusty and not perform at your best, but with the greatest squad in the world, four years of planned buildup, and an amazing record, it shouldn’t happen consistently.

So, should we be worried?

There seems to be two distinct schools of thought on the issue.

The first says that we can’t read anything into these games. The group games are arbitrary warmups, used to build combinations and practice key strategies. Coupled with the fact that minnow teams are stepping up, we’re having to grind out tough wins, and qualification to the knockout stages is what really matters.

The other school suggests that for all the talent the All Blacks have, their record/form heading into this World Cup as well as the elite coaching staff on their side, the performances they have churned out have been below expectations.

I am beginning to see merit in the latter.

Don’t get me wrong, my loyalty will always be with the boys in black and I still hold true that we have the ability and the determination to win the cup again, however I’ve lost some confidence.

Both Grant Fox, in an interview with Tony Veitch, and Steven Hansen at the after-match press conference, have stressed that there is nothing to fear.

Fox in particular lambasted Veitch for the notion that All Blacks’ fans have something to get scared about and assured everyone that it was all under control.

However, when Veitch asked Fox if he was happy with how the first three games of this tournament have gone, his response was cold; no, we’re frustrated.

And it shows in the stats.

18 handling errors in the game against Georgia. That’s almost an error every four minutes!

From a side that hasn’t lost its No. 1 World Ranking since 2009, with arguably one of the best squads in recent history, its just not good enough.

Couple this with the fact that Carter looked shaky with his kicking, Slade is sidelined with an injury, and TJ Peranara was the backup first-five, it begs the question of whether or not Sopoaga should have been on that flight over to England four weeks ago and brings back thoughts of 2011.

To rebuke some of these claims, both Hansen and Fox have mentioned the fact that, quite characteristically, All Blacks’ fans are always last to applaud another teams performance. If the scoreline is tight, we immediately heap the blame on our own players instead of recognising an astonishing showing of heart and skill from the opposition.

It is true, the minnow teams have stepped up dramatically in this tournament. Not a single game has had a team score more than 65 points, and we don’t even have to mention the upsets caused by Japan and Georgia earlier in the tournament. And yes, Georgia did indeed play well against New Zealand yesterday morning.

However, that doesn’t excuse poor kicking, handling errors, silly penalties and a lack of cohesion.

Those are the areas the All Blacks pride themselves in. Mentally, they are prepared better. Physically, they are prepared better. Strategically, they are unrivalled. So why is it, that we haven’t seen the All Blacks shine?

Is it just a case of ‘its just that sort of World Cup’? Where the big names just aren’t able to play solid rugby against the weaker opposition?

Well we know for a fact that this isn’t true. Both Ireland and Australia are looking more dangerous then ever.

Australia’s performance against England this morning was nothing short of amazing.

They have finally found the first-five they have been looking for in Bernard Foley. They have offensive weapons in Folau, Giteau and Ashley-Cooper, and they have two of the world’s best craftsman at the breakdown, Michael Hooper and David Pocock and ultimately, they have what a lot of the other teams lack; execution and cohesion.

They won the Rugby Championship, they beat the All Blacks in Sydney, and they by far look like the best team at this tournament.

Its not to say the All Blacks won’t do it. And if history is anything to go by, the boys will step up when it matters and they’ll deliver the results.

But you can’t help but feel a little apprehensive, when the best squad in the world is not performing at its best, and the other top teams are just beginning to peak.

In my mind, Steve Hansen and his men have one more game to get it right. If they don’t show a convincing performance against Tonga, it could dent their confidence severely heading into what should be an unparalleled quarter-final challenge.

Still, we believe in them. We believe they have the talent, the skill, the mindset and the heart to win it all.

I’ve still got my money on them, and its not time to sound the alarm just yet, but it would just be nice to give us fans a little peace of mind.

By Sam Hewat