And then there were eight. The quarter finals of the Rugby World Cup have arrived and to be honest, it is exactly what we would have expected from the four, five team, pools. (Ireland and Japan aside) So, this time it is for real and the first of the four mouth-watering ties up for decision is the meeting of old rivals England and Australia.
In team news, Eddie Jones has made three personnel changes to the XV that started against Argentina. Saracens’ giant Mako Vunipola is selected at loose-head prop in place of Joe Marler who is among the replacements. Northampton Saints’ Courtney Lawes replaces George Kruis in the second row while the most eyebrow-raising selection sees Henry Slade named at outside-centre with Manu Tuilagi switching to 12, Owen Farrell moving to fly-half and George Ford on the bench.
In the green and gold, Reece Hodge returns to the side following his suspension, due to high tackling Peceli Yato of Fiji in the Wallabies’ opening game, while the eyebrows of all rugby fans were more than raised at the naming of Jordan Petaia at 13. Aged 19 years 218 days on Saturday, Petaia is the second-youngest player to appear in a Rugby World Cup knockout match. (George North the youngest). He is going to be tested against Tuilagi and Slade for sure.
England’s decision to go with Farrell at 10 and not Ford, points at a more direct approach from Eddie Jones’ side. The Red Roses are not interested in having a second distributor at 12 for this one, they plan to walk over the Wallabies more so than even pretending to go around them.
With the return of Mako Vunipola, the addition of Lawes and the ever present ball carrying of that England backrow, England have more than enough in their locker for this one. I just can’t see the Australians living with the English power game, much to Cheika’s annoyance.
Selection: England to win by 13 points or more at 7/5.
Ireland v New Zealand, Sat, 11.15am
Next up is the battle royale between Ireland and New Zealand. This is going to be a tighter game than the 12 point handicap suggests. The last three meetings between the sides have been 2-1 in Ireland’s favour and they are the underdogs here.
Taking into consideration that in their meetings since 2013 (four tests) Ireland have a total of 87 points to New Zealand’s 83, the 12-point gap is too much for us to look at. Also in that time, Ireland have conceded just 18 penalties while the All-Blacks have been on the wrong side of 45 sharp blows on the referee’s whistle. Should they give away 10+ penalties on Saturday, the game will be up for them.
For Ireland, 12 of Saturday’s starting XV also started in the 16-9 victory against the All Blacks last November. Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw both missed that match through injury and Iain Henderson started on the bench. So, if you are looking for Irish positives, they are ‘stronger’ now that they were.
That confidence evaporates however when one considers that the All Blacks field seven different players from that test.
Karl Tu’inukuafe, Owen Franks, Liam Squire, Rieko Ioane, Ryan Crotty, Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie all played in that match but do not play this time. Indeed four of them didn’t make the Rugby World Cup squad of 31. Ouch!
This game, for me anyway, is going to come down to defence. The New Zealand attack shape and the selection of Beauden Barrett at 15 are all based on the trouble the All Blacks had in breaking down the British and Irish Lions’ red wall defence under current Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell. Ireland are going to have to bring massive line-speed to win this one and New Zealand, based on that, are going to have to take control of the rucks and win the turnover battle against man of the match from last November, Peter O’Mahony.
With line-speed coming from Ireland and New Zealand ‘flying’ into rucks, married with the current tackle, neck roll, 10 plus penalty counts and the ruck ‘clear out’ world we live in, I am going off reservation for the second part of our double.
I think, with Nigel Owens in the middle and with World Rugby holding a giant magnifying glass to this tie, a red card is not going to be far away. Of course we don’t want one to come, but the odds on one happening are 5/1. Coupled with the bet above, that would give us a 13/1 double.
Selection: A red card to be shown in this game @ 5/1.
*Prices correct a time of publication and the odds on the two selections combined is approx 13/1