Rugby World Cup quarterfinals: four superpowers and the rest of the field

The tough part of the draw has Ireland against New Zealand and France facing South Africa, while Wales and England are happy about drawing Argentina and Fiji

Mundial de Rugby
The New Zealand All Blacks prepare for a World Cup Rugby match against Uruguay; October 5, 2023.YOAN VALAT (EFE)

The group stage of the Rugby World Cup solidified the position of the four favorites, who happen to also hold the top spots in the world ranking (in order, Ireland, France, South Africa and New Zealand). The gap between them and the rest of the field is undeniable. However, the quarterfinal draw proved to be capricious when it pitted all four against each other, which means only two of the favorites will advance to the semifinals. In the United States, Peacock is streaming all 48 matches of the 2023 Rugby World Cup live. The quarterfinals will feature the fourth-ranked All Blacks of New Zealand facing off against top-ranked Ireland on October 14 (3 p.m. ET), and second-ranked host nation France taking on defending champion and third-ranked South Africa on October 15 (3 p.m. ET). Meanwhile, a lucky draw gives Wales, Argentina, England, and Fiji a great opportunity to grab a coveted spot in the semifinals. World No. 7 Wales will take on No. 8 Argentina on October 14 (11 a.m. ET), and No. 6 England faces No. 10 Fiji on October 15 (11 a.m. ET).

After making it through the first month of competition, the four superpowers assessed their strengths and weaknesses. France won convincingly against a decimated All Blacks team in the first match of the tourney, but the other competition in their group (Uruguay, Namibia, and Italy) didn’t test their mettle much. Antoine Dupont, a creative gamechanger who sets the pace for the French attack, suffered a fractured cheekbone that required surgery and will have to play with a protective mask. This could hurt France when it faces South Africa, a hard-hitting team that rarely commits fouls. How long can Dupont last and what will France do if he can’t play?

South Africa has the ability to extend its title defense for another week. They demonstrated discipline in the group stage by conserving ammunition against Scotland and Tonga. A team with a deep bench that can come in and score points provides an edge for the third-ranked South Africans. Although they suffered a group-stage loss to Ireland, they gradually improved throughout the match and controlled the final stretch. However, their weakness at scoring on place kicks — especially when Manie Libbok takes them — remains a concern. In a close game, these points could make all the difference.

After winning their group, Ireland’s prize was to draw perennial contenders New Zealand, a match that promises to be an intense battle. The Irish team boasts an impressive record of 16 consecutive victories, exhibiting qualities similar to the All Blacks: explosive starts, disciplined play, a relentless attack and a knack for converting opportunities into points. If the Irish wore black jerseys, they would be hard to tell apart from the formidable Kiwis. Ireland is also motivated by losing seven straight World Cup quarterfinal matches. For Ireland, it’s a must-win game, while New Zealand finds itself in familiar territory. Most of coach Ian Foster’s key players have recovered from their injuries, but the perennial favorite has some vulnerabilities. It no longer has the tactical talent of the 2011 and 2015 championship teams, but no team is stronger in the backfield.

On the other side of the draw is England, which won only two games in the recent Six Nations Championship (England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales). It recovered from that shaky performance with a comfortable victory over Argentina powered by George Ford. It ended up with four wins and now has a theoretically easy quarterfinal match against unpredictable Fiji, which beat a strong Australian side but lost to weaker Portugal.

Wales has been a semifinalist in two of the last three World Cups. After finishing in next-to-last place in the 2023 Six Nations Championship, Wales won its group by destroying Australia, barely surviving against Fiji and winning comfortably against Portugal and Georgia. They lost Taulupe Faletau, a valuable back-row forward, due to a broken arm in the Georgia match, but Argentina’s team is not as intimidating as the one that beat the All Blacks last year. Argentina is talented and plays with plenty of passion, but this squad shows little discipline. Still, anything is possible. The top-ranked teams will beat each other up in the quarterfinals, which may give hope to the rest of the field.

The two-time world champion Australians have been a major disappointment in the tournament, losing for the first time in the group stage. Their decline in recent years, highlighted by a loss to Italy last year, has been accelerated by a dearth of young team leaders, rough handling by their abrasive coach Eddie Jones, as well as his decision to leave veterans like Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper off the team.

Australia was the biggest loser of the group stage, but not the only one. The margin of Italy’s losses to New Zealand (96-17) and France (60-7) was insufferable for the country’s rugby fans. Romania was outscored by at least 74 points in its matches against South Africa, Scotland and Ireland, has also regressed greatly in recent years. Japan was the other 2019 quarterfinalist didn’t make it this time around. They almost knocked off Argentina but, like Scotland, fell victim to a very tough group.

Portugal won their first-ever World Cup match and amazed the world with their growth. Even the teams of Oceania are making strides — Fiji could potentially be the first Polynesian team in the semis, and Samoa managed to defeat England, partly due to the law allowing international players to switch teams. This is bad news for the Australians, who now have four years to regroup before the next World Cup.

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