This is a story mainly about four rugby teams. Team 1 has won 35 out of 42 test matches in the last four years (that’s an 83% winning record). They are currently on a 17-test winning streak and have won 27 out of their last 29 tests. Team 2 has won 33 out of 41 test matches in the last four years (82% winning record). They have only lost twice in the last two years. They are facing teams with a 70% winning record and a 65% winning record respectively. Team 1 has won 3 of their last 4 games against Team 4, while Team 2 has won the only time they won against Team 4.
In most cases, Team 1 and Team 2 would be (not overwhelmingly, but) healthy favourites over Teams 3 and 4. Not enough to be comfortable, but enough to know that Teams 1 and 2 have a margin of error that Teams 3 and 4 do not have and they should win more often than not.
But if you add the context of the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, how Teams 3 and 4 have 3 Rugby World Cups each (with Team 4 being the defending RWC champions) and Teams 1 and 2 having a somewhat tortured history in this tournament, it complicates this narrative.
That is where we find the four best teams in the world right now – Ireland facing New Zealand and France facing South Africa. The Rugby World Cup champion is likely to come from these four sides. No disrespect to Wales, Argentina, England or Fiji – but these four teams are on a different level to the rest of their Tier 1 rivals. The number of losses in the last two years that the Big 4 have had against teams not in the Big 4 are: Scotland over France in the 2023 RWC warm ups, Argentina over New Zealand in the 2022 Rugby Championship, Australia beating South Africa in the 2022 Rugby Championship and Wales over South Africa in the 2022 July series (you can include England drawing to New Zealand in November last year as well). That’s it.
But the first paragraph shows that surely there is some separation between Ireland and France as opposed to their southern hemisphere rivals? Ireland and France have been the most consistent teams over the last four years. They’ve followed the England 2003 recipe book of winning close to 80% of your games in the four year cycle, beating every team they have faced (home and away), establishing a number of players that are arguably the best players in their positions, they have won pretty and they have won ugly, they have managed to land blows on the All Blacks and the Springboks as well.
Even looking at the other two quarterfinals, England and Wales have pulled themselves together and have shown that on the other side of the draw, all you needed to be is a competent rugby team that limits their mistakes. Argentina had a horror show against England in the pool stages and Fiji just lost to the amazing Portugal in their last game. It should be that Wales and England are the favourites – which means that we could possibly have an all-Northern Hemisphere semi final for the first time.
So why are people (even myself) not ready to call them (at the very least) comfortable favourites, instead of saying that the two quarterfinals in Paris, especially, will be on the flip of a coin?
To paraphrase Italian philosopher Giorgio Chiellini, “it is de history of de Northern Hemisphere”.
We know there has only been one Northern Hemisphere champion – England in 2003. France have lost a number of finals. Wales have made a habit of regularly attending a few 3rd and 4th place playoffs. The Zombies Ireland fans might be singing about are the 7 defeats they have had in the quarterfinal stages.
For Ireland and France, the task is to beat the talent and the (black) magic of the All Blacks or the irrepressible power of the defending champion Springboks. The All Blacks and Springboks are the rugby establishment, the final frontiers for other sides in their quest to call themselves king of the hill. Even if Ireland and France have a big share of the world class talent, NZ and SA still have enough talent to match that arms race. While Ireland and France have been pictures of consistency, the ceiling of the two southern hemisphere powers is arguably higher – on their day they can tear even the best teams apart. And knockout games are the most ‘on their day’ type fixtures.
But this weekend of Rugby World Cup quarterfinals could (and possibly should) signal a shift in power on the rugby field from the south to the north.
This has been somewhat inevitable, given the resources the Six Nations countries and club competitions have to recruit playing and coaching talent from the Southern Hemisphere to bolster their competitions. The Euro is just too powerful for the New Zealand Dollar, never mind the South African Rand, Argentine Peso or the Fiji Dollar. The Southern Hemisphere is now used to seeing their playing and coaching talents in their prime in the Top 14, Premiership or Champions Cup instead of Super Rugby. South Africa has even upped sticks to form the United Rugby Championship with Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy and leaving Super Rugby to be a Pacific nations tournament. This is just the economics of the world right now – I’m sure most South African and New Zealand people in their 20s and 30s know a ton of people that have moved to Europe for better job prospects.
A Northern Hemisphere sweep of the quarterfinals is much more likely than a Southern Hemisphere one. Looking at the most recent Junior World Championships, three of the four semifinalists were France, Ireland and England. Could this be a sign of the times?
Wales v Argentina
Looking at each of the matches now, Wales have returned like the Prodigal Son to the House of Warrenball after years of following a false prophet called Wayne Pivac. Their attack is frankly (below) average. Out of the 8 quarterfinalists, they are last for meters made and defenders beaten, have the slowest average ruck speed (of over 5 seconds – you can make a coffee in that time) and have the lowest gainline success. But the first rule of Warrenball is limit your mistakes – Wales have conceded the fewest turnovers, meaning that they have the highest percentage of positive outcomes for their possessions (76%). Warrenball’s 2nd rule is kick – a lot. They have kicked 63% of their possession (second after England), meaning they have the lowest possession out of the 8 quarterfinalists. The final rule of Warrenball is tackle like your life depends on it. They have shifted slightly off the Shaun Edwards line speed and dominant tackles approach to one that is more about covering the whole field and focusing on rather making tackles than trying to make dominant tackles. They have made the most tackles of the quarterfinalists (166.8), 42 more than the next most and 60 more than the average of the 8 teams. Even though they make a ton more tackles, they have the best tackle success rate of 88%. Wales kick a lot, they tackle even more, they limit their mistakes, they play narrow and they are highly efficient in the red zone (with the second best efficiency).
In some ways, Argentina are the complete opposite. Argentina are also built in the image of their coach, Michael Cheika, in wanting to play a high possession, high paced type of game. They have the joint fewest kicks in play (10 less kicks per game than Wales), with the highest territory and the 3rd highest possession. They play through the middle, with the least amount of rugby in the tight (0-2 meters from the ruck) or out wide (more than 30 meters out), helped by having the best ruck speed (3.37s). They might be second for defenders beaten, but this leads to the fewest red zone entries and the second-fewest points from red zone entries (although their efficient is third best just behind Wales). Their scrum success is the worst of the 8, their discipline is 7th for penalties conceded (11 per game) and they concede the third highest turnovers (15), while winning the fewest turnovers per game (3.8). They make only 95.5 tackles per game.
Both Wales and Argentina have lost key players who help them with their weaknesses. Taulupe Faletau has been Wales’ highest ball carrier, with Wales not really having anyone else that can match his carrying into traffic. Pablo Matera has been leading Argentina with winning turnovers in a team that cannot win turnovers. This seems like a game where the team that prefers not to play with the ball, that limits their mistakes, that has a high efficiency in the 22 will win. Argentina faced this tactic before against England and they self-destructed trying to play too much rugby behind the advantage line. Santiago Carreras might be a talented rugby player, but as a flyhalf questions remain if he can manage the game. Tommy Reffell has been selected in Faletau’s place to pounce on any opportunity when Argentina continues to play behind the advantage line instead of kicking the ball away. It is obvious why Argentina’s best performance happened against another high possession touchline-to-touchline team like Japan in the group stages. Unless Argentina learn from the lessons of their opening game against England, Carreras manages the game better with Cubelli (who should hopefully kick more than Bertranou at scrumhalf) and Gonzalez, Kremer and Isa fill the Matera-sized hole, you can see this being a Wales win from a lot of points of Dan Biggar’s boot, a handful of turnovers from Reffell and a Jac Morgan bicycle kick assisting Louis-Rees Zammit for the dagger try.
England v Fiji
Another clash of styles. England is what you get if you were too cheap to pay the full price to get Wales. England have had the most kicks in play (33.8), with 68% of their possession kicked away. If Wales attack is (below) average, England’s is terrible – 7th in carries, ruck speed and meters made, 6th in defenders beaten and gainline success. 7th in red-zone efficiency, with only 2.48 points per entry, spending the lowest time in the opponent’s 22 with the fewest phases. England have at least a strong scrum, now they have selected Dane Coles to start. Their defence, turnovers conceded stats are all just a shade worse than Wales. Also England lost to Fiji 7 weeks ago in Twickenham.
But England should thank their lucky stars they’re facing a Fijian side that seem to be running close to empty. Fiji’s game plan can be described as many carries, lots of possession, but battling to convert into points. Top for carries, they play 59% of their phases more than 10m away from the previous ruck, second for offloads and collision dominance, third for meters made – this has not led to quick ruck ball, with Fiji only having the 6th quickest ruck speed. Their red zone efficiency, for a team that spends the second most time in the opponent’s 22 and play the most phases, is the worst of the quarterfinalists (1.66 points per entry). They rely on the long range boot of Lomani or Kuruvoli to get them points from penalties won by the immovable Levani Botia. Fiji have generated the most turnovers while conceding the second fewest penalties. Their lineout is horrible, an 81% lineout success seems generous. They have also conceded the joint most turnovers (17 per game). Funnily enough, England has won the second fewest turnovers and stolen the fewest lineouts.
This game to me is a battle between Levani Botia and Maro Itoje. Botia is leading Fiji for tackles (32), dominant tackles (6) and turnovers (3). Defensively there are not many better and Fiji may rely on turnover ball to let their ballers ball as the structured attack seems to be faltering with Caleb Muntz and Teti Tela both out and Vilimoni Botitu playing only his 4th game at flyhalf of his professional career. Itoje needs to lead the lineout in causing chaos for Fiji (note Fiji is starting Tevita Ikanivere instead of Sam Matavesi) and he needs to up those turnover stats and be a thorn on Fiji’s side every time they hold onto possession for a phase too long and run into dead ends.
One would think England’s tactic would be to copy and paste what they did against Argentina (since they are also a high possession but high error team), but England have selected Marcus Smith at 15 and dropped George Ford to the bench. Why? Who knows. This does not seem the game for Smith’s goose steps and broken play running. Because if it goes wrong and the ball rolls to Botia, Tuisova, Nayacalevu or Radradra, it could end in tears. Also if Fiji makes a linebreak and the aforementioned are one-on-one with Marcu Smith – tears again. I don’t envy Steve Borthwick having to choose between three talented flyhalves – one is the leader of the team and the record points scorer, one has over 80 caps and has rarely let England down, the other will be a great test rugby player in 2 years’ time. And luckily Fiji without a functioning lineout, without a recognized flyhalf, going on two bad games on the trot and whispers from their camp saying the team is not used to being away from home for this long and aren’t managing it well, England with Itoje, George, Genge, Lawes, Farrell, Tuilagi, etc. have enough know-how to stumble onto a semi-final. The streets would love a Fiji win, though.
Ireland v New Zealand
New Zealand are in their “we can give you 50 points but also concede 40 points the next game” era. The attack is so hard to stop once you give them momentum. The multiple playmakers in Mo’unga and Barrett x2 know how to create space for strike runners like Will Jordan and Leicester Fainga’anuku. Aaron Smith’s passing speed and range is well-known to Ireland, as it was the main reason they lost the first test last year. They’re a much better team than the team that lost the test series to Ireland in 2022 – James Ryan has returned some dawg in that pack. They don’t leak scrum penalties, their maul defence is a lot better, they can play in the trenches and can dominate the tackle area. The addition of Ethan de Groot and Tyrell Lomax, the form of Scott Barrett and Brodie Retallick, the resurgence of Shannon Frizell move their pack closer to the level of Ireland, France and the Springboks. They just need to gain parity and then their dangerous backs can do the rest.
But are they better than Ireland? Are they good enough to snap the 17-test winning streak? Ireland have not sat and twiddled their thumbs after winning the series in Aotearoa and starting the win streak they are on now. They have further developed the best phase play attack in world rugby, further strengthened their defence and showed against South Africa and Scotland in the pool stages that they can win in the gutters and win on the dancefloor (to borrow from Rassie Erasmus).
For New Zealand to win, they need to play close to a perfect game and Ireland need to be off theirs, quite frankly. The All Blacks can look at the victory against the Springboks in Mount Smart in July as their inspiration. They will tell us this is basically the first match since then they have had De Groot, Lomax, Retallick, Frizell, captain Sam Cane and Jordie Barrett all available since then. They beat the Springboks on that day with pinpoint field kicking ensuring the Boks were always on their back foot and not knowing what kind of kicks will come from Smith, the Barretts or Mo’unga and when. They had dominant carries, led by Shannon Frizell that created momentum. Aaron Smith was able to create space and mismatches with his impressive passing from the ruck. Scott Barrett was a nuisance in defence and when the Springboks came storming back it was him leading the resistance. Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane were never exposed defensively. Also, they beat Ireland on this stage four years ago, so why sweat it?
If the All Blacks have the Mount Smart plan, Ireland can look at their last match against Scotland for their approach to this knockout game. The All Blacks are a few levels better than Scotland, but the idea of trying to shut down playmakers from connecting with their strike runners out wide, being ready to win the turnover if they attack wide and the ruckers are not there in time, watching out for strike plays from set pieces, playing against a defence that prioritises covering space and making tackles over line speed and dominant hits and targeting defensive weaknesses of a 13 who is a fantastic attacking talent but can get overwhelmed when you throw a lot of bodies at his channel and he has to make a defensive read should be familiar to them. Hell, these are some of the elements of how Ireland played when they were coached by Joe Schmidt in the last World Cup.
The Irish blueprint for beating the All Blacks have been fast starts, high possession, fast ruck speed, flooding the midfield with attacking options, exploiting the blindside and then making the All Blacks want to attack from deep instead of on the front foot as they chase the game. The first twenty minutes of this game will be MASSIVE – is there a risk of either team letting go of the rope if they are 10+ points down in 10 minutes? Will New Zealand pack it in and pack up the Ian Foster era? Will Ireland let their intrusive QF thoughts win?
Retallick v Tadhg Beirne will be a fantastic match up. Beirne is almost an evolution of the Brodie Retallick that won World Rugby Player of the Year with his tentacles winning opponent ball in lineouts and rucks and his ability with ball in hand. All Black teams with the Guzzler rarely lose for a reason – he can play the trench warfare game as much as he can make the big linebreaks he did a decade ago. Rieko Ioane v Garry Ringrose is a big outside center philosophical debate – do you want your 13 putting pressure on the outside channels, risking missing tackles but with the ability to halt momentum or do you want them biding their time and relying on their pace to recover if someone goes through? As much as Rieko has improved over the last three years at 13, it is still an area for Ireland to expose like they exposed Huw Jones. I expect a plague of Sexton Loops to target Rieko’s channel. Also Jordie Barrett showed in the Twickenham game against the Boks that a big inside center running into his channel isn’t his cup of tea. Beauden Barrett has just not been the same fearless defender since his concussion issues. The loose forward trio battle will be box office – this is the game for Frizell to show the search for Jerome Kaino’s successor is finally over and to repeat his performance from Mount Smart. Sam Cane will look to get one over the mouthy Peter O’Mahony. And the All Blacks need an answer for two of the best ruck disruptors in Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier.
While New Zealand is very good and should be respected, I think Ireland are the better team in most areas of the field. France and South Africa have recently showed that the All Blacks still have some frailties up front, which hopefully the props and Frizell can fix. The All Black attack against France just looked like a bunch of Joe Schmidt starter plays and vibes. Again hopefully Jordie Barrett can fix that. This is the ultimate legacy test for both teams – if the best Irish team ever cannot get over the QF hump, when will they ever; were the All Blacks justified in backing Ian Foster and can the likes of Jordie Barrett, Shannon Frizell, Beauden Barrett show their class in their positions. This might be the game that at least makes the Ian Foster era worth it or proves to everyone (finally) that Ireland are the real deal.
France v South Africa
The game too close to call. Hosts versus world champions. Consistency versus, “wait, what are they doing now?”
There are many similarities between the two sides – a loosehead whose passing and ability over the ball is almost as good as their scrummaging (Baille and Kitshoff), an anchor of a tighthead that shouldn’t be slept on their contribution around the field (Atonio and Malherbe), a workhorse lock who plays a lot in the flanks with enough hoops to win an NBA Dunk Contest (Woki and Malherbe), two locks used as impact players who add impetus for their sides in the last quarter (Taofifenua and RG Snyman), inspirational leaders at flank who do the dirty work excellently, but are beautiful runners with ball in hand (Ollivon and Kolisi), classical number 8s who are the clouds of knowledge and tactics for both their sides and are ruck turnover machines (Alldritt and Vermeulen), two absolute ruck goblins whose presence on the field is evidenced by both their teams starting to win great ruck ball (Cros and Kwagga), two of the fastest forwards with the ball skills to be relied upon to play in the backs (Macalou and Kwagga), two flyhalves trying to prove themselves at this level known for their brilliance in attack (Jalibert and Libbok), two rampaging inside centers who relish breaking tackles and are brilliant over the ball (Danty and De Allende), two captains of their defences who always seem to be in the right place at the right time defensively (Fickou and Kriel), two scrumcapped agents of chaos with ball in hand and powerful kicking boots (Bielle-Biarrey and Kolbe/Arendse), two fullbacks who were not in their teams’ frames to start this big game two years ago but have proven their worth and are two brilliant attacking talents (Ramos and Damian Willemse).
The two sides even play in a similar way – or they used to play in a similar way. Fabien Galthie has spoken many times about how he learned a lot from the Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber way of playing without the ball, forcing the opponents into mistakes and taking chances from the 2019 Rugby World Cup. France have the lowest possession time of the quarterfinalists and only kick less than England and Wales (although they kick for the most meters per game, over double what South Africa kicks). France have emphasized collision dominance (which they are the best in), offloads (best) and linebreaks (2nd best). They have built a great set piece (3rd best scrum and 2nd best lineout), an uncompromising Shaun Edwards defence (the classic version of Jacques Nienaber), with the 2nd best tackle success rate and the third most dominant tackles and they conceded the fewest penalties out of the 8 remaining teams so far – conceding only 4 penalties against the All Blacks in the opening game. They have added to that world cup winning blueprint a highly efficient attack, as they require the fewest phases in the opponent’s 22 to score, score 3.07 points from every entry and they get into the opponent’s 22 the third most out of the 8. They have conceded the second lowest turnovers, meaning 74% of their attacks have a positive outcome (i.e. not ending due to errors).
The Springboks seem to have moved from that way of playing without the ball to being a team that plays with more possession and with speed now. This was seen in the clash between the two sides in Marseille that when France was kicking long, the Springboks would choose to hold onto the ball and run it back. We saw against Ireland that they played a lot wider than even Ireland did. This shift in approach coincided with the injury to Handre Pollard in 2022 as first Damina Willemse and now Manie Libbok have played at flyhalf for most of the last year. Libbok’s best talents being his ability as a playmaker and talented passer that can pick a pass and put players away and the playmaking load not being left only to Willie le Roux and Lukhanyo Am. The Boks have not followed the script of previous Rugby World Cup winners at all – they have not been as consistent as they could have been, have somewhat shrugged their shoulders at some losses being in service of the ultimate goal, have arrived at the World Cup with people not really knowing what their best 23 will be or how they will play, they have many whispering of surprises and changes of approach that the world is not prepared for in the knockouts. They only have one recognized hooker in their squad. Most world champions in the professional era had a team you could name without thinking (like Ireland, France and even New Zealand have now) and you knew how they would try to play, not a team that has gone from being the ones that kick the most to the least in the last year or so. If Rassie and Nienaber win the World Cup then it’s unprecedented on many levels. It is either a coaching masterclass or a brains trust going too galaxy brain.
In the World Cup they have the lowest percentage of possession kicked (46%) and the second fewest actual kicks (20.3). The Bok defence has been uncompromising with the second highest number of tackles and making the most dominant tackles (14.8), they made an eye watering 30 dominant tackles against Ireland. They have won the second most turnvoers at the breakdown, led by Deon Fourie and Kwagga Smith, which Duane Vermeulen will hopefully bolster in Malcolm Marx’s absence. Their set piece has been a traditional strength, but they have the second worse success rate at scrums and are fifth for lineout success (they have stolen the most lineouts, though), which is probably a consequence of losing Marx for the tournament and having Deon Fourie deputise at hooker.
In contrast to France, the Boks attack, efficiency and rate of errors has not been good. Boks are in the bottom half for most attacking stats like carries (8th), defenders beaten (5th), linebreaks (6th), collision dominance (7th). Their red zone efficiency has not been good, a long term issue for the Boks – they are 6th for efficiency (2.76 points per entry) and not scoring points from outside the 22 from the boot with Libbok’s goal kicking woes. They have conceded the joint most turnovers with Fiji (17) and in contrast to France they have the worst positive outcomes of any team with 4 out of 10 possessions ending in error.
The Boks may argue that this can be fixed and they can be more efficient in a big game. Their pedigree of winning the World Cup and the British and Irish Lions series is evidence of that. The pack can get back to their high standards in the set piece, they have been apparently waiting to unleash their rolling maul (after seemingly refusing to use it against Ireland), they are maybe one early try away from turning their chances into points and surely Manie Libbok’s kicking will balance towards the 70ish percent he kicks for the Stormers and not the 60% he kicks for the Boks. If the Boks insist on playing wide, they either need to make sure they get to rucks first or they target pilfer threats like Alldritt and Danty and make them tackle instead. The bench of Pollard, Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux seems primed to manage a game in the last 30 minutes from ahead. Like Ireland in the Six Nations this year, the Boks hope for a fast start, to control the scoreboard and when the last quarter comes to use the long kicking game against France to force them to attack from deep. The Springboks are probably the team best built to defend a lead in the last quarter with all their jackal threats and intelligent kicking game. It seems Sunday’s tactics will be to run them around the first half with Reinach and Libbok, keep the ball in play time high and tire Atonio and the like, take the chances, use the rolling maul with Vermeulen, build a lead, keep the crowd quiet and then shut off the lights like Eskom Stage 6 when the Faf-Pollard-Le Roux triumvirate come on.
France knows what’s coming. The man with the iron face, Antoine Dupont, said he is “ready to suffer” on Sunday. The whole team knows from last year’s game in Marseille what awaits them.
There is a formula for beating the Springboks during the Nienaber era – control the scoreboard, get parity in the set piece, bend but don’t break in the rolling maul, keep the ‘piggyback’ penalties to a minimum and when you get your own opportunity suck in and then stretch the rush defence. France have the ingredients – one of the best goal kickers in the world, a set piece that can hold on, they only conceded one try from the rolling maul in Marseille last year (from a bit of luck of Kolisi holding onto the ball instead of the hooker at the back), they are a disciplined team that does not give too many penalties in their own half and we know how good the French attack is. Damian Penaud is on a tear right now. He is top for try involvements (10 tries and try assists combined) and 3rd in tackle evasion, evading 78% of the tackles he has faced. He has scored in seven consecutive test matches and you won’t bet against him scoring on Sunday. Antoine Dupont’s biggest value may not be his running game but his ability to kick 50 meters in every clearing kick. If the French forwards can give him a platform and protect him from Pieter-Steph du Toit and Etzebeth charging down, then France won’t be playing much rugby in their half, just how they like it. There will be concerns from the last game after Baille was getting folded at scrum time without the power of Willemse behind him, but the French pack figured it out near the end with Falatea and Wardi at prop.
This looks to be a close game in the making. The Boks have 5 wins out of 13 in games within 7 points in the Jacques Nienaber era. That is usually as a result of the Boks falling behind early and leaving their bench with too much to do when they did not take their chances earlier. On the stats of the World Cup so far and based on the Ireland game it doesn’t seem like all those issues have been fixed, yet. But the reason many have the Boks winning the whole thing is they seem to have a higher level they can play in than anyone else.
This might be the biggest test of whether it is better to be consistent or it’s better to know you can go to a level nobody else can go to. This final game of the quarterfinals may just decide if the southern Bloodline still runs things on the field or if the New World Order has taken over.