This weekend sees the last of the pool matches, although most of the results will be important for statistical purposes only, apart from the Australia/Wales and France/Ireland matches.
From a realistic perspective, the two teams most likely to play in the final must be Australia and New Zealand. Some less likely candidates include South Africa, Wales, France and Ireland.
The Springboks are on an upward curve, which bodes well for the next round. Being written off by all and sundry after the shock defeat against Japan was possibly a blessing in disguise. Last night’s second half was excellent preparation for the game/games to come.
The Welsh side is decimated by injuries, and unless they have the depth to replace their first choice players with equally good ones, are unlikely to move beyond the quarter-finals.
France? Who knows? They probably hope to face Argentina in the quarter-finals, although my wish is that they will repeat their dragon-slaying antics against the All Blacks.
Ireland was not convincing against Italy. This is possibly due to the fact that the two teams know each other so well, and Italy had to beat them to reach the next round. I would not rate their chances too highly of making the finals.
What about the two main contenders?
The demolition job done by the Aussies on England was clinical, and certainly allayed the suspicion that their pack is a weak link in their armour. Their abrasive coach is exactly what any Australian team needs. They are super-competitive and will fight to the end, and, with Cheika taking no nonsense from the players, are likely to do well.
Then again, there is such a thing as peaking too soon. This, coupled with over-confidence, could see them stumble if faced by an equally determined side.
Yes, the whole world believes they will walk it. Their biggest threat is that they, too, subconsciously subscribe to this. Despite all the talk in their camp about the opposite, the mind is a powerful driver which is not easily steered off its natural course. Their below-standard performances against teams like Namibia and lowly Georgia may just be an indication that the mental challenge will become an increasing threat as the tournament progresses.
Another concern should be the easy passage thus far in the tournament. You cannot fail to flex your muscles and then have to face an abrasive side that had to fight in the trenches to get to the play-offs. Then again, this side always manages to come out on top even when under pressure.
Cometh the Hour
The RWC was, thus far, quite an enjoyable spectacle, but that will end from 16.00 on Saturday, 17 October, when the first quarter-final match starts. Winning rugby is all that will count.
South Africa is possibly best qualified to benefit from this. They have only one game plan, so there is no need to adjust, other than to exclude repeat yellow-card offenders from the line-up for the day. One area where we beat all others was in conceding 49 penalties in four games. Not exactly an enviable record, is it?
The two best balanced sides in the competition remain the Australasian contenders, but history shows that being favourites is sometimes counterproductive to one’s chances of winning.
PS We can now confidently confirm what Heyneke Meyer was doing with his fingers in the match against Scotland. My colleague Paull Lawrence has it on good authority that he did not want to make the same mistake as the Proteas, hence his manual Duckworth-Lewis calculation.