With twelve of the original 20 teams contesting the Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023 now on their way home, it was down to the remaining eight teams to enter the tournament knock-out phase and contest the quarter-finals.
With just one major surprise at this stage - Australia on the plane home with Fiji qualifying - the tournament was going more-or-less according to the world rankings. That is, after all, taking into account the fact often repeated in the lead up to, and during, the tournament, that the draw for the group stages was done in December 2020, almost three years before the tournament, therefore ignoring any change in world rankings in the intervening period.
The major losers were, arguably, Scotland, who were ranked #5 in the world and were drawn in the same group (B) as both Ireland and South Africa who were ranked above them. Having the top five ranked teams in one half of the draw (the other two were France and New Zealand, drawn together in Group A), meant that there was a significant imbalance between these two groups (the winners and runners-up of whom played each other this weekend in the quarter-finals) and Groups C and D from which Wales, Fiji, England and Argentina prevailed.
A quick mention of another point that has been raised, that of bridging the gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations, an issue which has also been raised on multiple occasions: some have argued that a World Cup is not the place for so-called weaker teams to play, just to get beaten badly by so-called "cricket scores", while others have argued that players on such teams do not otherwise get the opportunity to play against top teams, such as the All Blacks and Springboks. Maybe this is an opportunity for World Rugby to "level the playing-field", possibly by arranging more matches between Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams, possibly by introducing relegation and promotion from the 6Nations and Rugby Championship tournaments, and possibly by changing the RWC format. At least World Rugby have recognised the folly of undertaking the RWC group draw three years out from the tournament and have vowed to change this going forward. The rules of the game are also evolving, with a significant emphasis being put on head impacts, with dangerous tackles being penalised heavily, with yellow and red cards, as well as the "bunker" review system where the match can continue while the TMO can review the footage and decide if a yellow card should be upgraded to a red card.
The quarter-final matches were split between Marseille (the two earlier games on Saturday and Sunday) and Paris (the two later games).
QF1: Wales-Argentina, in Marseille
Wales had topped Group 3 after defeating both Australia and Fiji, their strongest challengers; this was despite an apalling series of results in their warm-up games. And Argentina, whose form in this summer's shortened southern-hemisphere Rugby Championship was less than impressive, had won their pool games apart from against England. So, neither had been playing particularly impressively, both one would be later competing a RWC semi-final...
The first half did not see rugby of the highest quality, with Wales losing possession on their own line-outs and Argentina's Emiliano Boffelli missing an early penalty attempt; yet out-half Dan Biggar was the man to come to Wales' rescue, scoring a try, a conversion and a penalty to go into a 10-0 lead after 21 minutes. Argentina's inside centre Santiago Chocobares had to be replaced by Matías Moroni, then Dan Biggar missed an opportunity to stretch Wales' lead. Argentina finished the first half strongly and responded with wing Emiliano Boffelli kicking two penalties in the last five minutes, to reduce the deficit to four points. HT: Wales 10, Argentina 6. Arguably the most exciting part of the half was after fifteen minutes when referee Jaco Peyper suffered what seemed to be a calf injury and was replaced by Karl Dickinson. At half-time, Wales made their first change, with hooker Ryan Elias being replaced by Dewi Lake.
In the second half, Argentina came out all guns blazing and threatened the Welsh line, drawing a penalty from the referee just under the posts; they elected to kick for the points and Emiliano Boffelli succeeded, cutting Wales' lead to just one point. Both teams were content to play the ball in hand. going through the phases, with both out-halves opting to kick rarely. On 48 minutes, Argentina elected to kick another penalty, Emiliano Boffelli again succeeding, putting Argentina in the lead for the first time. They started to get on top, both by using their maul to good effect, but also because Wales were still making basic handling errors. On 55 minutes, Argentina made five substitutions at the same time. But it was Wales who responded with rerplacement Tomos Williams breaking the South Americans' defence and touching down for Wales' second try of the game. With Dan Biggar's conversion, Wales were back in the lead, by five points, entering the final quarter of the game. Louis Reece-Zammit carelessly kicked long, with the ball going over the dead-ball line, with the referee bringing play back to just outside Wales' 22, with Argentina awarded a scrum which they used as a platform to attack. After a number of phases of play, the referee awarded a penalty to Argentina who elected not to kick for the three points but instead kicked to touch - the TMO called the referee's attention to an incident of foul play from which no action was called and second-row Guido Petti Pagadizabal stayed on the field - from which their mail won another penalty, and another one, all the time threatening Wales' try line. On 67 minutes they got over, with with replacement prop Joel Sclavi getting him name on the scoresheet. Emiliano Boffelli converted to put Argentina back into a two-point lead with just eleven minutes left. All of Wales' substitutions were on the pitch by the time there were just fifteen minutes of play left. With six minutes left to play, Wales spread the ball out wide but Louis Reece-Zammit's dive for the line was just outside the corner flag, in touch. A nervy last few minutes; Argentina won a line-out and kicked the ball out of their 22 for some breathing space. Wales were passing the ball, probing the Argentinian defence, only to loose possession to Nicolas Sanchez who intercepted one of the passes and ran through to touch down under the posts. With the conversion secured, Argentina were now nine points ahead with just two minutes left to play, meaning Wales would have to score twice to win. Argentina were awarded another penalty, just inside Wales' half which Nicolas Sanchez converted, with the ball crossing through the posts with the clock showing 80 minutes had passed. FT Wales 17, Argentina 29, with the South Americans set to play the winner of Ireland - New Zealand later on Saturday evening.
Wales were now on the plane home after a game in which the likes of Dan Biggar and Liam Williams failed to shine, whether through injury or fatigue; but they fared much better than their pre-tournament form suggested, in winning their group. Argentina had started the tournament slowly and were very disappointing in their opening game against England and, while they were not their best against Wales, they did more than enough to guarantee a semi-final spot; however, that is likely how far they will progress, given the strength of the other two teams contesting the other quarter final, the winner of which they will meet in Paris next Friday evening.
QF2: Ireland-New Zealand, in Paris
Would Ireland finally get the proverbial monkey off their back? They had never reached the RWC semi-finals, and this time round had been ranked #1 in the world going into the tournament. And they had defeated the All Blacks last summer in New Zealand. Also, Ireland were 6Nations champions and New Zealand were champions of the Rugby Championship, the most significant annual tournaments in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively. New Zealand were three-times winners of the RWC, so Ireland would have to do it the hard way. But to win, the champions would have to beat the best. There had been a meme doing the rounds on social media in the run-up to the match, with Ireland countering the All Blacks' haka with an Irish dance...
Before kick-off, the Irish fans in the stadium sang "The Fields of Athenry" to drown out the All Blacks' haka. After Johnny Sexton kicked off for Ireland, both sides started nervously with errors from both teams. New Zealand then camped in Ireland's 22 for a few minutes, continually changing direction with their plays. Awarded a penalty, they elected to kick for the points, with Richie Mo'unga successful from fifteen metres out. An early 0-3 lead for New Zealand, after eight minutes. Shortly afterwards, Ireland had some share of the possession and won a penalty close to the 10m line, with Johnny Sexton electing to kick for touch. From the resulting line-out, Ireland passed the ball out wide to the other wing, only to lose possession, killing the attacking threat. New Zealand were awarded a penalty just one metre inside the Irish half; Jordie Barrie lined it up and guided it through the uprights to stretch his sides' lead to six points. Suddenly, Ireland found some space and slice through the All Blacks' defence; however, it held firm for the next couple of Irish phases. New Zealand were playing the better rugby and started to pile on the pressure, with wing Leicester Fainga'anuku scoring the game's opening try on nineteen minutes, with Richie Mo'unga successful with the conversion. From the restart, Ireland won a penalty which Johnny Sexton then kicked for Ireland's first points of the game, reducing the deficit to ten points. Ireland lost an ensuing line-out but blocked down a clearance kick; in the next play, a through kick resulted in a scrabble for the ball, with New Zealand getting to it first for a goal-line drop-out. Ireland were on top, camped in the All Blacks' half and their pressure paid off in the 27th minute when Bundee Aki danced though a number of tackles for Ireland's first try of the game. With Johnny Sexron's conversion, Ireland were now just three points behind New Zealand. The All Blacks were trying to chip over the Irish rush defence. New Zealand laid siege to Ireland's try line and spread the ball wide, with Ardie Savea touching down in the corner. Richie Mo'unga missed the conversion. Suddenly, the momentum changed Ireland's way as scrum-half Aaron Smith was yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on. Ireland were awarded another penalty and kicked for touch. From the resulting line-out and maul, Ireland's no.9 Jamison Gibson-Park darted through and scored Ireland's second try which was converted by Johnny Sexton just before half-time. HT Ireland 17, New Zealand 18. Breathless...
In the second half, both sides were giving it all; gone were the mistakes of the first quarter. Mack Hansen received the ball out wide and kicked a 50-22. Ireland won the resulting line-out but lost possession on the All Blacks' 5m line. Ireland regained possession and spread it out wide, first left, then right, camped in the All Blacks' 22. Ireland pushed the New Zealand scrum backwards but the referee deemed Ireland had committed a foul, the ensuing penalty allowing New Zealand to get back past half-way. New Zealand were now on the attack and were going through the phases; Ireland turned the ball over and got back into their opponents' 22, only for the referee to penalise Ireland for going in from the side. Ireland called prop Tadgh Furlong ashore with Finlay Bealham on in his place for the first substitution of the game. Suddenly New Zealand found a chick in Ireland's defence, with wing Will Jordan finishing off a clinical move. With the conversion missed, the gap was six points. On 56 minutes, Mack Hansen picked up an injury chasing a through ball and had to come off, being replaced by Jimmy O'Brien who earned his first start of the RWC, the last player on the Irish squad to do so. Johnny Sexton missed a penalty and the chance to reduce Ireland's deficit to three points. Ireland were piling the pressure on New Zealand and tried to chip over their defence, but without success. Conor Murray then replaced Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half for Ireland. Hugo Keenan then evaded a few tackles to send the Irish crowd on their feet, and James Lowe almost broke through too. The referee blew for a penalty with Ireland going for touch and a line-out throw. By now, most of the replacements of both sides were on the field. Tadgh Byrne won the line-out for Ireland and Ireland's maul drove for the line; the referee blew for a penalty try - Ireland were back to within one point of New Zealand who were down to fourteen men with hooker Codie Taylor yellow-carded. Fourteen minutes to play. It could hardly be tighter... The referee blows for a scrum and New Zealand have to make a change (to have a full front row on the pitch). New Zealand were awarded a penalty just inside Ireland's half; Jordie Barrett hooked it left... Another penalty to New Zealand and Jordie Barrett tried again, from Ireland's 10m line, this time successfully, to stretch their lead to four points. Penalty again, this time to Ireland in New Zealand's 22 and Johnny Sexton kicks for touch. Substitute hooker Ronan Kellaher throws in, Ireland gather a form a mail and drive over the line, only for the referee to signal a goal-line drop-out for New Zealand. Eight minutes left and the crowd was roaring Ireland on. New Zealand were back to fifteen men. New Zealand were slowing the ball down and playing it tight, starving Ireland of possession. Ireland then managed to turn over the ball and started to move up the pitch, first over half-way and then over the 10m line. Phase after phase, 39 in total, knowing a penalty would not be enough... Ireland got into New Zealand's 22. New Zealand turned the ball over and that was it... FT Ireland 24, New Zealand 28, with the Southern Hemisphere team set to play Argentina in Paris next Friday in the first of the RWC 2023's semi-finals.
Well, that was some contest... titanic, described by many... Fit for a final, by others.
QF3: England-Fiji, in Marseille
England, one-time RWC winners (remember Jonny Wilkinson's drop-goal to win it in Australia in 2003?) were up against Fiji who were double Olympic champions and who had defeated Australia (but who were also beaten by tournament minnows, Portugal). Fiji played open, running rugby but were susceptible under the high ball, while England's game was more structured. England's coach, Steve Borthwick, had selected Owen Farrell at out-half and Marcus Smith at full-back, omitting George Ford and Freddie Steward from the starting fifteen, in somewhat of a selection surprise.
Both teams seemed to be a bit on edge in the opening exchanges, trying to find a rhythm to their play. England were the first to score, with Owen Farrell slotting through a penalty with ten minutes on the clock. Four minutes later, England's inside centre Manu Tuilagi powered through for his team's and the game's first try, with Owen Farrell missing the conversion. England were 8-0 up at this stage, but Fiji could have got on the scoreboard only for Frank Lomani to miss a penalty kick; two minutes later, however, he did just that when the referee blew for another penalty against England. But Fiji's reprise was short-lived as Vinaya Habosi was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle, immediately after which Joe Marchant scored England's second try, with Owen Farrell converting. Both sides had players off the field for HIAs, Luke Tagi for Fiji and Marcus Smith for England. In a frenetic passage of play, Frank Lomani converted a penalty for Fiji to keep them within touching distance of England, with Viliame Mata getting Fiji's first try after a comedy of errors with the ball bobbling around just outside England's try line. Frank Lomani converted for Fiji, with Owen Farrell slotting home another penalty with six minutes to go to half-time. Marcus Smith came back on, with time for Owen Farrell to kick another penalty just before the referee blew for half-time. HT England 21, Fiji 10.
In the second half, Fiji started strongly and had more of the ball. The first score of the second half came in the 54th minute when Owen Farrell kicked a penalty to extend England's lead to fourteen points. By that time, Fiji had brought on three replacements, Samuel Matavesi, Peni Ravai and Sireli Maqala. With 25 minutes left to play, Meli Derenalagi and Simione Kuruvoli also came of for the Pacific Islanders who were making metres with ball in hand. Owen Farrell missed a penalty attempt. As in earlier games, Fiji's handling let them down, with England being awarded scrums for knock-ons or turning the ball over. The referee was being kept busy and was also penalising both teams for crossing. With 20 minutes remaining, England started to make changes, with Kyle Sinckler, Danny Care and Joe Marler all entering the fray. Fiji moved up the pitch into England's 22 and spread the ball wide, then back inside, for replacement Peni Ravai to slide through the defence for his side's second try. With Simione Kuruvoli converting, the difference was back to seven points, just one score. England's Ollie Lawrence then came on, with both benches being emptied in the remaining minutes. With fifteen minutes to play, Fiji were awarded a penalty just inside England's half; the kick rebounded off the upright and Fiji regained possession and broke through England's defensive line once more for Vilimoni Botitu to score just outside the posts. With Simione Kuruvoli converting, the scores were suddenly level. With the re-start, England's #8 Ben Earl broke through a number of despairing Fijian tackles to put pressure on their defence. After a number of phases, Owen Farrell dropped a goal to eke out a three-point lead with just eight minutes left to play. Fiji then used the high ball and won a throw-in with England's 22, only to knock on the ball and give up possession. England brought play up into Fiji's half and were awarded a penalty after another break by Ben Earl, with Own Farrell converting for another three points. Just over two minutes left and Fiji were awarded a scrum just outside England's 22. England were slowing down the game with the scrum needed a couple of resets. Fiji won the ball and went through a number of phases, with England's defence pressing up and driving them back inside their own half. With the clock in the red, England's Owen Farrell knocked the ball on, giving Fiji a penalty which they kicked for a line-out. Fiji regained possession on the half-way line only for the referee to award England a penalty. Games over. FT England 30, Fiji 24.
England had played well in the first half, much better than they have in the past year or so, but they let Fiji back into the game when they could, should have had it wrapped up. They now are through to the RWC semi-final, scarcely a believable scenario even a few weeks before the tournament kicked off so poor was their form. But whether they have enough to topple either of their possible opponents in next Saturday's game (France or South Africa) is doubtful. Fiji, on the other hand, can look back on their campaign with overly positive memories, particularly defeating Australia and also getting back on level terms with England in the quarter-final in the last quarter of the game; but they will not look back fondly at their loss to Portugal... to use this as a stepping stone for the future, they must learn to be consistent.
QF4: France-South Africa, in Paris
The home team and favourites for the competition, France, were up against three-times winners, the Springboks. France had defeated New Zealand in the opening game of the tournament, and therefore topped Group A. Talisman scrum-half Antoine Dupont had been cleared to play after fracturing his cheeckbone in the group match against Namibia, but would be wearing protective headgear. Would he be 100% fit and ready for the game, or would it affect France who also lost out-half Romain Ntamack before the tournament to injury. South Africa, meanwhile, were again without a recognised place kicker in the starting fifteen; however, their replacements bench had a traditional five-three forwards-backs split, rather than the much talked-about six-two or even seven-one split which arguably backfired for them in the group match against Ireland.
South Africa kicked off, with both sides kicking high or over the other's defence with France almost scoring in the second minute after a friendly bounce of the ball. France did score the opening try in the fourth minute when Cyril Baille finished off a strong French move in which their maul drove the South Africans back almost 20m. Fall-back Thomas Ramos converted from the touchline for a 7-0 lead for France. Almost immediately, France were on the attack again, following a strong break through the middle by hooker Peato Mauvaka, only for South Africa to deny them a second try within six minutes. Hardly had one time to gather one's breath from that, did South Africa get their first try when wing Kurt-Lee Arendse run onto a kick-through to touch down near the corner. From the resulting conversion, Manie Libbok was successful, tying the scores at 7-7. This was certainly no cagey affair... Thomas Ramos missed a penalty attempt from the touchline, with South Africa attempting to run the ball from behind their own try-line. On seventeen minutes, South Africa had their second try after a flowing move and a break through the French defence, with inside centre Damian de Allende touching down. With Manie Libbok's kick just wide of the upright, South Africa led by five points. After some nimble footwork, it was then France's turn to spend some time in South Africa's 22, with the ball again being spread out wide for hooker Peato Mauvaka to score in the corner. Thomas Ramos took too long with the conversion attempt and was charged down for the score to be tied again after 23 minutes. With the rush South African defence pressurising, France fumbled near half-way, South Africa gathered the ball and kicked through for Cheslin Kolbe to sprint through, gather it on a kindly bounce and dive for his team's third try. Manie Libbok's conversion was good, putting South Africa into a 19-12 lead. Damian Penaud also tried to chip the South African defence but he could not gather the ball and South Africa cleared, but only for France the keep the pressure on. France's maul and pick-and-drive over a few phases then gifted them their third try, with prop Cyrille Baille getting the credit. This time Thomas Ramos wasted no time and slotted home the conversion. There was a ferocious struggle involving both forwards and backs in the middle of the pitch, with both teams capable of pouncing on the slightest of errors. Five minutes to go to half-time. France were awarded a penalty on South Africa's 10m line; the TMO called the referee's attention to a potential foul play, resulting in a yellow card for South Africa's Eben Etzebeth. Thomas Ramos kicked the penalty for France to take a slender lead. HT France 22, South Africa 19.
France kicked off the second half, the first real attack came from France as they broke through the South African defence, only for a knock-on to scupper their efforts. The crowd were on their feet when Antoine Dupont, wearing a scrum-cap after his recent injury picked up playing against Namibia, chipped over the South African defence, but the move died out. South Africa started to bring on their replacements, with Handre Pollard, RG Snyman, Faf de Klerk and Deon Fourie all entering the fray on 45 minutes. France were being the more threatening, with South Africa on the back foot, but they turned over the ball and cleared it to touch. Eben Eztebeth then returned after his ten minutes were served. Then France started to empty their replacement bench with Reda Wardi, Romain Taofifenua and Francois Cros coming on, followed by Kwagga Smith, Ox Nche and Willie Le Roux for South Africa. France were awarded a scrum inside South Africa's 22 and passed the ball out wide, only to be forced back by South Africa's rush defence. France were awarded a penalty and Thomas Ramos add three more points. South Africa powered their way into France's 22, but the referee awarded France a penalty. The partisan crowd was making a lot of noise, roaring on their team. Cheslin Kolbe then went on a mazy run through France's defence but was eventually brought down in the 22. South African were awarded a penalty and kicked for touch; from the ensuing line-out, France forced play back to near the half-way line, only for a fumble to give possession back to France. Space suddenly opened up, with the running game back on, from both sides. It was France's turn to knock on, at South Africa's 22. Suddenly the ball was up the other end, South Africa being awarded a penalty on France's 5m line. They tapped it and, a couple of phases later, Eben Eztebeth got over the line. With the conversion, South Africa were suddenly one point ahead. After the restart, France were penalised again; from just inside the South African half, replacement Handre Pollard got it over the posts to stretch South Africa's lead to four points. South Africa's superior replacements were making the difference; but France were not out of it yet. Thomas Ramos slotted home a penalty to make it a one-point game again, with eight minutes left on the clock. South Africa tried a drop-goal, but missed. Just over five minutes to go and still a one-point game. South Africa were in France's 22 and were going through the phases, until they knocked-on. Like in the earlier quarter-final, a scrum near the end being delayed by one team, the team in the lead. Just over two minutes to go. Out of nowhere, France broke up their right wing and across the half-way line, but South Africa's turned over the ball. Back to France and inside their own half, with less than a minute left on the clock, trying to keep the ball alive. The ball was fumbled and South Africa kicked out to win by a point. FT France 28, South Africa 29.
So, South Africa prevailed in the end, overhauling France's initial lead and, in the process earned a RWC semi-final next Saturday evening back at the Stade de France, against England. France, like Ireland the previous evening, were now out of the tournament at the quarter-final stage, something that their loyal (yet partisan) following had not envisaged; being #2 in the world rankings (and Ireland #1) had counted for little at this stage of the tournament and, even with home advantage, the encouragement of the crowd was not enough to get them over the line.
The semi-final line up is as follows:
SF1: Argentina - New Zealand (on Friday)
SF2: England - South Africa (on Saturday).
Interestingly, England are the only northern hemisphere side left in the tournament...
RWC 2023 QF, France-South Africa (Credit: Chronicle.lu)