Outside of Fiji’s rise and Australia’s demise, the first 3 1/2 weeks of the Rugby World Cup have been, in a large sense, predictable.
Yet none out of the big four of top-ranked Ireland, new No. 2 France and the southern hemisphere powers of South Africa and New Zealand are guaranteed a place in the quarterfinals heading into the final set of pool matches starting on Thursday and running through to Sunday.
Wales and England — which no one gave much thought to — are the only teams to have both feet in the last eight and the luxury of looking ahead.
So there might still be a twist or two when the remaining six quarterfinalists are decided in a furious four days of last-minute jostling.
Look out for Scotland, which holds the fate of both Ireland and defending champion South Africa in its hands. Italy could upset the campaign of host France and become the most unpopular team at the World Cup.
Scotland and Italy are very long shots for the quarters, but given almost everything has gone to script so far, maybe the pool stage can spring a last-round surprise.
Pool B rests on Scotland’s game against Ireland at Stade de France on Saturday, when there’s a head-spinning series of possibilities involving winning bonus points, losing bonus points, points difference, and so on. All three teams, Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, could end up on 15 pool points, resulting in points difference in games between them becoming the decisive factor.
Calculators are at the ready.
The bottom line is Scotland has to win to have a chance at the quarterfinals and before any of the other calculations come into play. Title favorite Ireland’s knockout stage effectively starts a week earlier than it was hoping.
Ireland reinforced its status as rugby’s No. 1 with an epic backs-to-the-wall win over South Africa earlier in the pool stage and has won the last eight against Scotland since 2018, so any surprise would be enormous.
Scotland has nothing to lose. Ireland, after more than a year at No. 1, has everything on the line.
“I’d rather sit here than be Ireland,” said South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
The Springboks have played all their pool games and can only watch on TV and, no matter what Erasmus says, the Boks won’t be sitting too comfortably given they could also be sent packing.
Like Ireland, France has won three from three in its pool and has so far met all pre-tournament expectations of mounting a serious challenge for its first world title. Like Ireland, it could all be for zilch if France’s final Pool A game against Italy in Lyon on Friday goes the wrong way.
Italy is even more of an underdog than Scotland having not beaten France since 2013, and having just come off a 96-17 grilling by New Zealand, a team France beat.
But pressure does funny things. Home pressure, especially.
France also has the added distraction of the injury saga of captain Antoine Dupont, its most important player, but who likely won’t be available against Italy on Friday night and whose future participation at the World Cup is still unclear because of a facial fracture.
“We won’t be complacent against Italy,” France assistant coach Karim Ghezal said. “We’ll be focused and concentrated. We know it’s going to be a different game. Rugby is a fighting sport.”
The smartest money for the quarterfinals might be on three-time champion New Zealand, which looks fully recovered from its opening-game defeat to France and needs a win with four tries or more against rank outsider Uruguay to be sure of progressing. Given that the All Blacks ran 14 tries past No. 11 Italy last week, a similar rampage against No. 17 Uruguay in Lyon on Thursday is widely expected.
Argentina and Japan face a winner-takes-all contest in Pool D in Nantes on Sunday to progress behind England. The most relevant thing about Argentina and Japan might be that they hardly ever play each other. Their two meetings since the turn of the century both went Argentina’s way.
Fiji will follow Wales into the quarterfinals from Pool C and make its first Rugby World Cup knockouts since 2007 by beating minnow Portugal in Toulouse on Sunday, or even losing narrowly. That will confirm the earliest elimination ever for two-time champion Australia, which may well be the one big turn-up of the pool stage.
The only thing that can save Australia is Portugal winning its first World Cup game ever and, more than that, denying Fiji any losing bonus points.
“We’re still alive,” said ever-optimistic Australia coach Eddie Jones, whose team has played its four pool games but is hanging around in France in case something akin to a rugby miracle happens.
Amid all the possible surprises, Australia playing again at this World Cup would easily be one of the biggest.
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