- 6 Oct 07, 10:58 AM
Swansea - Eight left and by the end of the weekend there will be four.
Which four that will be has yet to be determined, but what is for sure is that the make-up of the semis will be heavily influenced by the performances of each of the team’s key players.
Here’s my rundown on this weekend’s central figures and who will end up winners and losers.
England v Australia
Once England had taken that South African hiding in the group stages, throwing them into Australia’s half of the draw, they were collectively written off by the press and public alike. In fact, many, including me, doubted that they would even make it to the last eight with difficult ties against Samoa and Tonga left to negotiate.
But negotiate them they did, and now that the match with Australia is upon us, there has been a change in expert opinion.
With Jonny Wilkinson back at the helm, there is a growing feeling that England could come away with a win from this game.
As central as Wilkinson is to this England side, this game will be won and lost up front. I think England’s key man will be their returning skipper Phil Vickery.
The creaks in the Australian scrum are not as prevalent as they have been in the recent past, but the set piece remains the area England must pinpoint to exert pressure on their opponents. Vickery will need to be the heart of that effort.
More crucial than that, though, will be his leadership skills. He stood behind his captain, Martin Johnston, in the final four years ago as the Leicester man led from the front and set an example for his troops. Vickery will have to be as talismanic in Marseille on Saturday as Johnson was in 2003 if England are going to keep the defence of their trophy alive.
Australia have a devastating backline and, with an ample supply of possession, could cut England to ribbons. But to do so they will be reliant on the continued form of rookie fly-half Berrick Barnes.
The youngster showed an aptitude for the big occasion in Australia’s group game against Wales in Cardiff, looking confident and assured as he made the decisive break to set up Matt Giteau’s opening score.
It is a World Cup quarter-final, though, and the jitters have got to more experienced men than him in the past, so his temperament will be vital.
Despite England’s improvement in recent games I will have to go for Australia and their dangerous backs to walk away with the spoils. Their pack is no longer sub-standard and will match England’s. With that platform, Barnes and the rest will do the business.
France v New Zealand
France’s selection for this match hints at the game plan they are going to employ and comes as a surprise to me. The presence of kicking Lionel Beauxis at 10 and Damien Traille and his siege gun boot at full-back suggests that Les Blues will play a structured, territorial kicking game that will be a complete contrast to the style that won them their semi-final against the All Blacks in 1999.
It will be Beauxis, therefore, who will need to kick accurately for ground because, as everyone knows, kicking loosely to the likes of Macdonald, Rokocoko and Sivivatu can be costly.
For the All Blacks, as ever, everything will revolve around Dan Carter. On his day (which seems to come around pretty often), he is unrivalled in his ability to single-handedly win a game. In fact, I’d go as far to say if Carter fires it virtually guarantees the All Blacks victory. Even if he doesn’t, then they’ll probably win anyway!
France will need to produce a monumental effort to deny this New Zealand side a semi-final berth. Maybe if they’d been playing in front of a home crowd, them it might have been a possibility. Being in Cardiff as it is, however, means I will stick with Graham Henry’s boys to march on.
South Africa v Fiji
Fiji are now my adopted team for the remainder of this tournament, but I fear that will only be one more game.
The Islanders will need to spring the mother-of-all World Cup shocks to get past the South Africans - and that challenge has become even stiffer since losing their influential outside-half Nicky Little to a nasty-looking knee injury.
If they are to make inroads into the Springboks defence, I think that they will need to get wide of their powerful pack and use Seru Rabeni to attack the 13 channel , a tactic they employed against Wales.
Rabeni will be a handful for anyone and, if he and Fiji’s other runners can get beyond the gain line and also get their offload game going, there’s no doubt they can score tries.
South Africa have been buoyed by the return of Schalk Burger to their back-row following suspension but he could see himself targeted in the same way that Alix Popham was for Wales by Fiji’s big hitters. Those early physical confrontations will set the tone for the game.
The all-action Burger will be out to turn the tables on the Fijians and line-up a few collisions of his own.
I predict a brave Fijian performance with a couple of tries to boot, but the Springboks to go through with a comfortable victory. Mind you, I’ve said that before!
Argentina v Scotland
The last of the weekend’s quarter-finals sees Argentina out to send another Six Nations team packing after already accounting for France and Ireland in the group stages.
The Pumas have a real hard-nosed edge to their game at the moment and have also developed a winning mentality. Their pack is firing on all cylinders and there is genuine finishing ability in the three-quarters. But the person who continues to make it all tick is the evergreen Augustin Pichot.
He no longer possesses the pace of old but more than makes up for his tiring legs with his razor sharp mind. I speak from experience when I say that he can bewilder opposition back-rows, always keeping them guessing while he sets a dizzying tempo with his livewire style.
Outside of him he has the sublimely talented duo of Hernandez and Contepomi, too. That axis of the team is bursting with the creativity to compliment the grunt of the pack.
If the tournament so far is anything to go by, Scotland will be looking to metronomic utility man Chris Paterson to kick them to victory. He enjoys a 100% kicking success so far in the World Cup. That stat is even more impressive considering the difficulties the likes of Wilkinson and Carter have had with the official ball.
Scotland may need more than that, though, and they will hope that the confidence that their backs have gained from the routs against Romania and Portugal in the group stages will see them take them game to the Pumas.
Should their defence hold strong and a tight game develop, then they certainly have a trump card in Paterson.
I’m opting for Argentina, though, as I thought their win against Ireland showed that they are now a team who are not just capable of shocking the ‘top tier’ nations but a team who are among the world elite. In my eyes, they could even make the final.
Enjoy the weekend!
Ryan Jones plays number eight for Wales but misses the World Cup through injury.