Dubai: No more slip-ups are permitted as the Rugby World Cup enters the business end of the tournament as the knockout stages get under way this weekend.
Ireland, South Africa and Australia suffered all losses during the pool stages in Japan but made it through to the quarter-finals to set up some mouthwatering last-eight clashes where only the winner will take it all.
Here is a look at each of the four matches coming up this weekend
England v Australia
Eddie Jones’ England side look to be in ominous form as they prepare to take on Michael Cheika’s Wallabies in Oita on Saturday.
England have transformed themselves into one of the best sides in the world since their infamous pool-stage exit as hosts during the 2015 World Cup and the Aussies will have their work cut out to halt a side who have defeated them in each of the last six clashes between the two teams.
“Obviously if you compare it to 2015 it’s very different,” said Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs, one of four England players who were involved in the 2011 quarter-final defeat to France.
“For us what’s happened in the past is irrelevant. Clearly we weren’t good enough in ’11 or ’15 — but in ’19 we feel we’re more than capable of achieving something.”
Despite the losing streak against England, coach Cheika knows his men are capable of an upset. “The fear inside us is dead,” he said.
Jones has taken a gamble by dropping the in-form George Ford to the bench and switching the ever-reliable captain Owen Farrell from inside centre to stand-off.
Farrell has plenty of experience at fly-half, where he plays for Saracens and the switch will allow Manu Tuilagi and the fit-again Henry Slade to team up in midfield to provide a solid defence to nullify the Australia attack. It will either be a tactical masterstroke or a big mistake for Jones’ and England’s title hopes.
New Zealand v Ireland
Second up on Saturday is the title-defending All Blacks against the stuttering Irish. Like England, Steve Hansen’s New Zealand have swept aside all-comers in their pool, including a strong South Africa pack.
Meanwhile, Ireland were stunned by hosts Japan and struggled to break down a stubborn Samoa in Pool A before scraping into the knockout rounds.
Whatever the result — and it is looking like a big score in favour of the All Blacks, it will mark the end of a coaching era.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and All Blacks boss Hansen are both quitting their respective teams after their interest in the tournament comes to an end. For one man that means Saturday.
Kiwi Schmidt has carried Ireland to their greatest heights in the modern era with a Six Nations championship and a first-ever win over the All Blacks.
Hansen, meanwhile, has already won the World Cup with New Zealand as assistant in 2011 and as head coach four years ago.
To claim it a third time would arguably make him the greatest international coach of all time.
“Come the final whistle one will go right and one will go left,” Hansen said. “Sport, like life, is not always fair. Sometimes you’re going to get the rub of the green, but the measure of your character is how you deal with it when the game is over.”
Wales v France
The clash of the dark horses takes place on Sunday morning UAE time as the Welsh take on their near neighbours in a match between two sides that know each other inside out.
While Wales ground out a narrow win over Australia in Pool D and France finished behind England in Pool C, it may be Les Bleus who come into the match the fresher and with their tails up.
Skipper Guilhem Guirado is back in the team having seemingly sorted out his differences with coach Jacques Brunel and France have no injury worries following an extended break due to their final pool match against England being cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis.
Wales have received a boost with the news that Dan Biggar has recovered from a head knock he suffered in an accidental collision with teammate Liam Williams in the win over Fiji on October 9. Coach Warren Gatland believes Wales’ recent record shows they can cope with the burden of expectation as they face France as favourites. Wales have beaten France in seven of their last eight matches and Gatland said: “Michael Cheika said we were favourites against Australia and we handled that. It’s not just about the physical preparation, it’s about being mentally right. If you get that right in big games it can often make a big difference.”
Japan v South Africa
Many would argue that the quarter-finals could be saving the best for last — not least the expectant and passionate home crowds in Japan who have taken rugby to their heart.
Following dramatic wins over Ireland and Scotland Japan sent a whole nation into raptures by topping Pool A and booking a place in the quarter-finals for the first time. And to add to the spice, they will meet familiar opponents South Africa, who may just be out for a modicum of revenge. Fur years ago, Japan sent shock waves through the sport by defeating the Springboks in the ‘Miracle of Brighton’ to truly announce their arrival on the big stage.
The only cloud in the Land of the Rising Sun is the enforced change to their starting line-up as William Tupou has been forced out and will be replaced by Ryohei Yamanaka.
The loss still clearly hurts for South Africa. “It was very tough to lose like that in England, that has stuck with us,” Springboks captain Siya Kolisi said. “It is something obviously we never want to go through again. They have really improved as a team. They are a much better team than they were four years ago.”
The Boks will be much more wary this time around as they face the Japanese with that crowd roaring them on in their own backyard.