Knockout rugby has arrived at the Rugby World Cup and the Wallabies faced old foes England in the first quarter-final.
The match in Oita sees Wallabies coach Michael Cheika looking to stop the run of six consecutive losses against former team-mate Eddie Jones’ England. Cheika’s team dumped England out of their own Rugby World Cup four years’ ago.
Since then, England has been unbeaten, and Jones will feel that he has the measure of Cheika’s Wallabies. In the lead up to the match, both Cheika and Jones spiced up proceedings with predictably provocative soundbites.
However, the only thing that matters is proceedings on the pitch come game time.
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In selecting his team, Cheika has gone for form over experience with Isi Naisarani (seven Tests) and Jordan Petaia (two Tests) starting. It suggests that the Wallabies are prepared to reward performances but also indicates that victory will have to be fashioned from something more than experience.
The Wallabies have been sporadic with their overall performances in the tournament. What will please the coach is that they have responded well when required. Both their second-half displays against Fiji and Wales demonstrate that they can match England. However, playing catchup rugby in a quarter-final could be a bridge too far.
England’s team sees Jones shuffling positions to provide what looks, on paper, like close to the best side available.
Under pressure captain Owen Farrell, looking woeful with his kicking at times moves back to fly-half while George Ford’s sound performances are rewarded with a seat on the bench.
Mako Vunipola will make his first start since May; buoyed by the extra week’s rest due to the France game being cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis.
Jones’ team selections are designed to stop creativity when defending.
“Once you get to the quarter-finals, it’s about having the right mindset. We know how well we can play, it’s about us playing to our strengths and trying to take away from what Australia want," he said.
"Australia are a clever team, they will have some specific attacking strategies to play against us so we need to have a great situational awareness. We need to defend with brutality and when we have the ball we need play on top of them.”
The Wallabies fans will have mixed feelings over the officials selected for the game in Oita. The on-field officials are the French trio of Jérôme Garcès (referee), Romain Poite and Mathieu Raynal (assistants).
Garcès has put in solid refereeing performances in the tournament and takes a laissez-faire attitude when some of his colleagues may be more interventionist. It is the appointment of Ben Skeen as TMO that will provoke ire of Wallabies fans. It was Skeen’s comments that led to, arguably, match-changing decisions in the narrow defeat to Wales.
The TMO should be providing a ‘silent service’ to the referee, helping to clarify any ambiguities, but Skeen has appeared to steer referees towards decisions. Skeen has attracted criticism in the media which cannot be acceptable to World Rugby.
In the other quarter-final on Saturday, the All Blacks and Ireland meet in Tokyo. On Sunday, Wales and France play in Oita before Japan and the Springboks close out the semi-finals. All three games will be entertaining encounters.
The All Blacks have lost two out of the last three games against Ireland, and Joe Schmidt’s men have recently, albeit temporarily, replaced New Zealand as the world’s number one team.
For Wales and France, it’s a clash of styles and approaches. Wales is a well-oiled machine, fine-tuned by Warren Gatland, whereas France is the antithesis. Riddled with in-fighting, they are fuelled by Gallic flair.
If they don’t know what they are going to do, how possibly can Wales? And to finish, it is Japan and the Springboks.
Surely the fairy-tale ends at the hands of South Africa? The record between the two nations stands at one win each: Japan won the ‘Miracle in Brighton’ in 2015 and South Africa handed out a pre-tournament beating 41-7. Neither match reflects where both teams are currently at. Japan has been a revelation by playing fast, attacking rugby.
The Springboks have plenty in the tank and can raise the speed game with the likes of Cheslin Kolbe. This quarter-final will either be a damp squib, with the Springboks sucking the life out of the Japanese team's flowing rugby, or an absolute classic.
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