Rugby World Cup Preview: Will All Blacks avoid crushing loss to France?

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The quest to lift the Rugby World Cup ramps up this Saturday with the quarterfinals kicking off at England’s rugby headquarters, Twickenham Stadium.  The glaring omission in the knockouts at the HQ is England themselves, who shocked their home crowd during pool play, first by losing a nail-biter to Wales, then following it up a week later by laying an egg against Australia.  As predicted in our pool preview, many are demanding that Stuart Lancaster be sacked for his team’s pedestrian efforts, but he’s only one of many on the receiving end of the host country’s blame-a-thon.   The silver lining for fans of the Queen’s men is that England Rugby merchandise is now half price!

Pool winners Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Ireland were all favored to top the tables and delivered, but it’s uncertain if all four will be able to reach the semifinals.  Here is a peek at the first of this weekend’s fixtures and the keys for each match.

 

South Africa vs Wales: (Twickenham Stadium, Saturday @11 am ET.)

South Africa is now part of two of the most historic moments in Rugby World Cup history.  The first was the 1995 World Cup victory that landed Nelson Mandela in the World Rugby Hall of Fame, spurred the film Invictus, and convinced the masses that Matt Damon knew how to play rugby.

The second was a few weeks ago when the same world-beating Springboks were handed the biggest shock defeat in rugby history by Japan.  After choking down this enormous mouthful of humble pie, the ‘Boks remembered that they were the ‘Boks, and followed the catastrophic defeat with three comprehensive victories.  Their strength is, well… their strength.  South Africa has a forward pack that grinds away opponents.  They will scrum and maul and trample the weak underfoot.

Welsh fans are still enjoying a heavy helping of “I Told You So’s” after knocking England from their customarily overconfident perch.  They have made the quarters despite filling a M.A.S.H. unit with their injured.  Rugby followers outside of Wales may not have noticed, as cover usually comes in the form of yet another player named Davies or Williams.

Give credit to this banged-up side.  They just will not go away.  Their flyhalf, Dan Biggar, is having a dream tournament with his deadly accurate boot and grit in attack.  Their flankers can compete with any team, and will likely put the Springbok ballcarriers under intense pressure.  Plus, the amount of red in the stands singing Bread of Heaven on Saturday will make Twickenham seem like Cardiff.

If the game is a slow grind, the Springboks win.  If Wales can run and gun, fear the Dragon!

 

New Zealand vs France: (Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday @3pm ET)

New Zealand has World Cup issues with France.  Twice, in 1999 and again in 2007, the All Blacks have been KO’d by their croissant carrying rivals. France has the Gaul to play the type of daring, expansive rugby that capitalizes on the AB’s overconfidence. What’s ominous for the fanatics in the Land of the Long White Cloud is that this seems to happen on an eight year cycle.

Good thing sports fans aren’t superstitious.

The All Blacks are once again perfect in pool play.  Yet, even after turning every opponent over their knee (New Zealand has outscored opponents 174-49), the team has been scrutinized for their sloppiness by the local rags back home.

They have had a few injuries that will exacerbate the fear mongering in the Southern Hemisphere, most notably to ironman prop, Tony Woodcock.  But, this team is deep.  The forwards, led by captain Richie McCaw, cover the park and can pass and run like backs.  The backs, which have been a mixed bag throughout the tourney are due for a breakout match.  There is no logical reason for the All Blacks to lose this match.

France defies logic.  They have been outgunned in both previous victories over New Zealand.  This time around, they have a bigger arsenal.  Their pack begins with a characteristically nasty front row, and ends with a resurgently dominant Louis Picamoles.  They will give their vaunted opponents plenty to think about.  The battle in the centers will be key as favored French pair Bastereaud and Fofana go to work against Wellington warriors Nonu and Smith.

The facts, stats, and reason favor the Men in Black.

Chance favors the bold.  If this game is still within reach in the last twenty minutes, beware the Men in Bleus.