Nick Powell, Print Sport Editor, reviews the third week of the Rugby World Cup.
A hectic week of World Cup Rugby brought us closer to discovering who the last eight will be, whilst producing more drama as the group stage reached its climax.
It wasn’t drama everywhere, with New Zealand winning by 63 then 62 points to all-but seal their place in the quarter finals and Ireland and Fiji swatting aside Russia and Georgia respectively by 35 points on Thursday morning.
But red cards, big guns crashing out, sides sealing their place in the quarter finals and late drama was all on the menu in the other games as hosts Japan took another step towards the quarter finals.
Their victory against Samoa, by 38 points to 19, left them one win away from topping their formidable group that contains two of the home nations, Ireland and Scotland.
The former returned to winning ways with a solid, albeit unconvincing win over Russia, whilst Scotland, will face those opponents before playing Japan themselves in the game that should decide it all.
To be assured of qualification, Scotland will have to win both those games with a four-try bonus point. Should they fail to put in a performance of real conviction against Russia, hosts Japan may not even need to win Sunday’s decider to make a historic quarter final.
Pool B’s effective decider was between Italy and South Africa. Italy had made a perfect start to the tournament. Win against South Africa and they were through.
They would need a miracle on the scale of Japan’s win against the Springboks four years earlier, but early on South Africa’s superior skill level showed and after a red card for prop Andrea Lovotti, there was only going to be one winner.
With New Zealand and South Africa breezing (the former needing a win over Italy to win the group, the latter cruising to a win over Canada on Tuesday to seal second), this group looks to be all wrapped up.
One group that is definitely wrapped up is Pool C. A similarly painful red card for Tomas Lavanini, in a similarly crucial game, giving England control of their game over Argentina, and a late flourish giving the men in white a thumping 39-10 victory. The Pumas head home at the group stages for the first time since 2003.
France also sealed their place in the knockout stages, but not before narrow pulling clear late on against USA, and hanging on for victory in their latest match against Tonga. They have been far from convincing in a tournament that they see as mere preparation for their hosting of the World Cup in four years time, but are one win away from topping their group as they face England next Saturday.
Which leaves, last but not least, Pool D. A pool where the three challengers to Australia and Wales’ expected dominance have ended each other’s hopes by beating each other. Uruguay beating Fiji, but being dominated by Georgia, who were hammered by Fiji (got all of that?).
What it means is one win each, so even if Fiji can repeat their 2007 World Cup upset of Wales on Wednesday, they will still go out, so long as Wales beat Uruguay, which they managed to do by an enormous margin four years ago.
So other than the thrilling Pool A showdown between Japan and Scotland, the final week seems unlikely to offer a great deal more than we already know. Nonetheless there is room for many an upset, and France could well pinch that crucial #1 spot off England in the 2003 Champions’ pool.
Yet there is a twist in the tale. Typhoon Hagibis, due to hit the southern island of Kyushu this Saturday threatens Ireland’s crucial game against Samoa and Wales’ match against Uruguay.
If the games aren’t rearranged in advance and don’t go ahead, they will be scoreless draws.
Though Wales’ place in the quarter-finals wouldn’t appear to be under too much threat, their number 1 spot, which if they beat Fiji they would fully deserved, may yet be snatched from their grasp.
As for Ireland, in a nip and tuck group, the Typhoon could ultimately leave them short of the knockout stages, should Scotland beat Russia and Japan.
Whatever happens, don’t underestimate the potential for drama at this Rugby World Cup.