In a Rugby World Cup group game, the average winning margin is 28 points. In a knock-out game, it is 14 points. In a final, it is 10 points, and three finals have been decided by less than one score.
The newspaper in which I read those statistics used them as evidence that knock-out rugby is boring. I strongly suspect the correspondent was a football fan, because the actual reason is quite the opposite – it gets close in the quarter-finals because that’s when the best teams start playing each other. This is where it gets fascinating.
While there are those who will complain that the competition has again failed to produce a group-stage upset, it is difficult to be too downhearted about this because it guarantees an immense weekend of rugby. The obvious weak link is Argentina, who are extremely unlikely to overcome New Zealand (30/1 last I checked), but then Dan Carter thoughtfully ruptured a tendon he never knew he had, giving the game huge resonance for Colin Slade and those who put their house on the All Blacks instead of a pension plan. I for one will be tuning in with rapt attention, not only to see if Slade can fill the winged sandals of Carter but also to seize upon the first sign of choking, spluttering or even mild heart burn from the men in black.
Elsewhere, England and France will renew an historic rivalry with both sides looking to improve. This may turn out to be hubristic, but I make England heavy, heavy favourites. Not only have England won 4 from 4, including two games that thoroughly resembled knock-out rugby, they also have pedigree in this type of game. Add to that the abject form of the French, the deteriorating relationship between coach and players, their weird selection and the psychological impact of a certain J Wilkinson, and I will be astonished if England lose. That said, it is a World Cup quarter final, and if ever there is a game where form goes out of the window, it’s a knock-out game in a World Cup. France are always capable of a mercurial turnaround. I just think that in this instance, it’s more unlikely than usual.
As if that wasn’t enough, the really mouthwatering clashes are the two I have yet to mention. Australia vs South Africa will be titanic, with large numbers of travelling supporters set to create a pulsating atmosphere. David Pocock against Heinrich Brussow, Will Genia against Fourie du Preez – huge clashes in a huge game. Australia are favourites, having beaten South Africa in their last four meetings, but I actually fancy the Springboks to win. Not only is this side the most experienced in their history, with 836 caps, it contains a number of players who are World Cup winners, where Australia have none. Ireland showed that you can beat the Wallabies by kicking your goals and having a blanket defence, both strong facets of the South African game, and I expect that will have had a psychological impact. The onus is on Australia to make the play quick and loose, and in the knock-out stages I always bet against the side who have to break free to win the game – it’s just not how knock-out rugby works.
That is in turn what makes the Celtic clash the pick of the round, as neither side should look to stifle the other. Wales will never abandon their free-flowing style, regardless of circumstance, and a Northern Hemisphere opponent reduces the chance that they will execute badly because of nerves or psychological weakness. Ireland, meanwhile, have the pack to play it tight, but they cut loose against Italy and their dynamic back row will want a broken game so that they can scavenge possession. Although it would buck the trend of late-stage rugby, there is a genuine chance that we’ll see exciting, fast-paced, incisive rugby. The last time Wales and Ireland met in an ultra-pressured game was the 6 Nations decider in 2009, and that was an absolute belter. I really can’t pick a winner, although my heart just about says Wales. Ultimately, whichever of the outstanding back rows wins the day will lead their side to victory, and Warburton against O’Brien is too close to call.