World Cup Quarter Finals Part One: Knock Out Six Nations

The alarm clocks are set.  The breakfast has been purchased (well, it’ll be bought this evening) and anticipation levels couldn’t be higher.  With the draw split entirely by hemisphere, Saturday sees the start of the first Knock-Out Six Nations.

Race to the top: Ireland v Wales

Who saw this coming?  Wales and Ireland arrive in the quarter finals as two of the form teams in the tournament.  Both appear to have come from nowhere.  Ireland were awful in the warm-up games and against USA, but their turnaround has shown how quickly things can change.  One extraordinary result and performance against Australia has turned their problems to vapour.  Confidence is now oozing through the side, as evidenced by the crushing of Italy.  Suddenly they’re everyone’s favourite team and a path to the final has opened up before them. 

Wales had been poor for a long time before this tournament, and it wasn’t long ago we thought they mightn’t get out of their pool, but Gatty’s brave selections have unearthed an exciting side.  In truth, they should have won their pool, but fell just short against South Africa, before overcoming a potent Samoa side and hammering Fiji.  Wazza deserves credit for breaking with the past and jettisoning many of the Class of 2008.  James Hook and Ryan Jones finds themselves benched, while Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne are out of the 22.  Wales now have something they have lacked for some time – a dynamic, ball-carrying Number 8.  Elsewhere, the return of so many players who have either been injured or rubbish for the last two years (the props, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips) has reinvigorated the side.

The game is being billed as Youth vs. Experience, a match-up between Wales’ fearless young tyros and Ireland’s gnarled veterans.  As such, Ireland are marginal favourites, as history has shown that in World Cup situations, the gnarled veterans tend to come out on top.  Much has rightly been made of the Irish players’ medal count against that of the Welsh.  This is new territory for the hugely impressive likes of Sam Warburton (23yrs old and captain), Toby Felatau (20) and George North (19) – can they keep their heads under pressure in the way that Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara assuredly will do so for Ireland?  It might just make the difference. 

We can’t see much between the scums and lineouts (so long as Best holds up) and while Ireland have the more potent carriers in their pack, Wales have the specialist groundhog.  Wales have terrifying pace (and skill) in their back three, and two monsters in midfield – Ireland don’t dazzle in the same way in attack, but have been supreme defensively.  Protecting the 10 channel (we imagine Roberts has been sleeping with a picture of ROG above his bed all week) will be paramount.

We’re keeping with the feelgood factor on this, and predicting Ireland will go through to their first ever semi-final.  Their greater knockout savvy, honed through the provinces in the Heineken Cup, should just shade it for them.

Race to the bottom: England v France

Ugh.  If Wales v Ireland is shaping up to be a potential classic, the follow-up looks increasingly like a game to sour the milk in your cornflakes.  Frankly, neither side deserves to make a semi-final.  France’s implosion has been almost comically similar to that of their kickyball team last year.  Just what is Lievremont doing?  WoC initially enjoyed their cheeky selection against New Zealand, but persisting with a scrummie at out-half against Tonga, and losing, and then doing so again for the quarter final just smacks of lunacy.  The bizarre press conferences and attacks on his own players have been unseemly, even prompting our muse Thornley to suggest that that he should have been removed from his post after the Tonga debacle and a new emergency coach installed.  Remarkable stuff, but not without merit.

England are little better.  True, they would never capitulate like the French in the Tonga game, but they have been abysmal.  They were deeply fortunate againt both Argentina and Scotland to emerge from the Group of Dearth with four wins.  Woefully indiscpilined and inept in attack, Jonno deserves much of the blame for reneging on the team he had built before the tournament.  Remember them?  The one that tried to play at pace and run with the football; the one that won the Six Nations and thrashed Australia.  But Jonno has decided that the World Cup is no place for such frippery and has reverted to ‘Cup rugby’.  For Cup Rugby, see Bollock and Boot Rugby.  It merely dragged England down to the levels of Argentina and Scotland.

If France can get their heads right, this England team is there for the taking, but such an eventuality seems unlikely.  Expect England to grind it out, and put Lievremont out of his misery.

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