The man who predicted that Sunday’s quarter finals would comprise South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Scotland is very probably looking forward to a weekend in a luxurious Marseilles 5-Star hotel and a fairly sizeable box at the Stade Velodrome. Scotland and South Africa are likely to have had their accommodation booked in Paris and Marseilles respectively for some time, but few expected Argentina and Fiji to be keeping them company.
That they are is testimony to two proud rugby nations who have shaken up the old order and taken care of half of the home unions in the process. Many predicted that Argentina would come this far but few expected them to emerge unscathed from the Pool of Death and to be favourites to take their semi-final bow. Having already sent their hosts to face the prospect of being eliminated from their own tournament away from home, the sky is the limit.
First, however, they need to take care of Scotland and this may not be as straightforward a task as many are claiming. Argentina are entering unchartered territory as hot favourites in a World Cup knockout match. They are used to being the maltreated underdog, the team everyone watches with a sympathetic smile and admiration for their plucky performances. Now though, they are a genuine threat and are rightly seen as the main hope for preventing the complete domination of the tournament by the Tri-Nations. How they handle this will dictate the course of the match for it is very much theirs to lose.
Without demeaning Argentina’s achievements thus far one iota, they have overcome a France side who froze on the opening night and a desperate Irish outfit who had to chase the game from the first minute and badly misjudged their tactics by not taking penalties that were on offer and building a lead. I think Scotland will prove more of a threat to Argentina than Ireland. Scotland play in a similar way to Argentina; they are not expansive, have a big pack and kick well. They too will try to keep the game at close quarters and Dan Parks will kick with more far accuracy than Ronan O’Gara achieved. Chris Paterson will also punish any indiscipline with the ruthlessness he has shown throughout the tournament – he is the only player with a 100% kicking record in the World Cup.
Scotland spluttered into the last eight in a dirge of a match against Italy but, although their recent record against Argentina is appalling (no victory for 17 years), they could not have wished for a better draw. I take Argentina’s abrasiveness to prove too much for Scotland, allied to the fact that they have more cutting edge in the backs, with Juan Martin Hernandez to the fore. However, Paterson could have a word to say about that if they do not improve their discipline compared to the Ireland game.
Amid all the concerns about England losing to Samoa or Tonga, Fiji were slipping through the tournament almost unnoticed until that staggering match in Nantes against Wales. They played a brand of rugby to which everyone else surely aspires but which so few can execute. Of course it helps if your wingers are 16 ½ stones and your second rows can run the hundred in sub-12 seconds, but it was their utter lack of inhibition which was such a joy to watch. While Fiji have been somewhat overshadowed by the Samoans in recent times, it should be remembered that they were only a late Tom Smith try away from the quarters 4 years ago.
In truth Fiji gave very little indication in their early games that they were contemplating running the Welsh ragged at their own game. They scraped past Japan and Canada and were hammered by Australia. But in Delasau, Rabeni and Qera, they have shown that they have individuals capable of anything. Whatever happens on Sunday, they have provided some of the most vivid memories from RWC 2007.
Unfortunately their contribution to the tournament is likely to come to a shuddering halt on Sunday. Any team who concedes a pushover try to Wales is likely to receive something of a pounding from the giant South African pack. South Africa will also not play into Fiji’s hands like Wales did. They will control the ball and not allow it to develop into the sort of open game in which the Fijian runners can do so much damage. This is a shame for the neutral but the Springboks are far too professional to be concerned with such trivialities. South Africa also possess kickers who will play the corners, confident that Victor Matfield will pick off plenty of opposition lineout ball. Against Wales, Fiji showed what they can do if you give them the ball. South Africa’s entire approach will revolve around making sure they do not make that mistake, and they certainly have the armoury to achieve it.
Sunday will be another superb day for the Rugby World Cup as the two teams who have contributed so much get their day in the spotlight. It is likely that only one of them will survive but the old order has been well and truly shaken up. Nothing that occurs on Sunday can change that.
By Stuart Peel