For those of us who were really looking forward to Le Crunch this weekend, don’t despair – there’s still a chance we might get to see some rugby on Saturday and Sunday, with a couple of potentially rip-snorting, destiny-deciding matches being played out in ‘Group of Death’ Pool A (weather permitting).
With six of the eight quarter final spots already filled, two of Scotland, Ireland and Japan can still go through. It’s set to be a nerve-jangling climax to what has been a fascinating pool stage, and it would be a damn shame for the tournament if the weather gods were to intervene and leave us with no excuse for heading to the pub tomorrow and Sunday morning.
Poolside Permutations – Who Needs What?
After Japan moved back to the top of the table in Pool A with a bonus-point victory over Samoa, a win or draw against Scotland would be enough to send them through to the quarter-finals.
What Scotland need will almost certainly depend on how Ireland get on against Samoa on Saturday. If Ireland lose with no bonus point, Scotland will go through to the last eight with a draw or if their game on Sunday is called off.
If Ireland pilfer a losing bonus point or a draw on Saturday, Scotland have to beat Japan to rob Ireland off a place in the last eight.
If Ireland win, a Scotland victory (with no bonus points for Scotland or Japan) will take them through at the expense of Japan - by virtue of winning Sunday's match.
If Japan, Scotland and Ireland were all to end up on 15 points, the quarter-final places would be decided on points difference. Got that?
Ireland ‘Will Leave Nothing To Chance’
The one game on Saturday that is still going ahead (for now) is Ireland’s crucial match v Samoa, where a bonus-point win for the men in green will guarantee them a place in the quarter-finals, irrespective of whether or not Scotland’s game versus Japan goes ahead on Sunday.
Ireland currently sit second in the pool, three points adrift from Japan, and coach Schmidt is not contemplating any other scenario than a convincing Irish win. He’s rolled out the heavy artillery for the clash against the Pacific Islanders, making 11 changes to the XV that cantered past Russia.
The starting pack looks brimming with power and dynamism; Sexton and Murray will pull the strings from half back while the rampant Robbie Henshaw makes his first appearance in Japan as he returns from injury to counter the Pacific Islander’s considerable midfield ballast.
Ireland know that even the dullest 9-3 victory may be enough to see them through, but they will be gunning for a bonus point win to leave nothing to chance. The men in green have lost just once to Samoa, back in 1996, although they have never met each other in a World Cup match and never in a game where one team has so much to lose and the other absolutely nothing. It’s a potentially perilous equation, but I think this Irish side is steeled with more than enough big game nous to claim victory tomorrow.
If Schmidt’s boys do win well and end up topping the group, their reward will be a quarter final match up against a punishingly physical Springboks outfit. If they come second, the mighty All Blacks await. Talk about the luck of the Irish…
Prediction – Ireland by 30
Weight Of History Sits On Japanese Shoulders
Hosts Japan are aiming to make it out of the pool stages of a Rugby World Cup for the first time in their history, and they come into their final game in Pool A on the back of five successive victories in the competition.
The Brave Blossoms’ previous record against the Scots makes for pretty grim reading going into this one. For Japan and Scotland have met seven times before in full Test matches, with Scotland winning ALL of those games. Along the way they have scored 17 tries, conceding just three in the process. Ouch.
Crucially, we’ve been here before. Four years ago, with Japan riding high after shocking over the second ranked team in the world, they met in a group B. Scotland, however, didn’t rate the script and quietly marmalised Eddie Jones’ charges 45-10 at Kingsholm. Since then they have met in two further Test matches, both in Japan in 2016, with the visitors running out victorious on both occasions.
Blessed with a golden opportunity, how will this remarkable Japanese outfit respond to the pressure of a home crowd?
Scots Must Ride Russian Momentum
Scotland thumped the Ruskis 61-0 in their last outing, becoming the first side ever to chalk up a double doughnut - back-to-back Rugby World Cup games without conceding a point. In fact, overall, the Scots have ‘nilled’ sides on five occasions in their tournament history, the most of any side. After some early tournament nerves, Townsend’s men are beginning for find their feet, but they face a huge test on Sunday when they take on the hosts, who quite literally have a whole nation behind them.
Their record against the Brave Blossoms is something they can take comfort from and they definitely have enough fire power to win this one, especially given how much emotional and physical energy Japan have spent so far in this tournament.
If Scotland were to lose and crash out of the tournament, it would only be the second time in their history that they have failed to make it out of the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup. The only previous time came eight years ago, when they came a cropper in a tricky pool in 2011 that contained both England and Argentina.
With so much stake and plenty of weather around, I’m predicting a cagey affair on Sunday if this one goes ahead.
Prediction: Scotland by 6 – Japan go through with losing bonus point
Wales have made 13 changes to the side that beat Fiji in a thriller earlier this week as they face brave minnows Uruguay in their final pool match. A win for Gatland’s boyos will see them top the group and set up a hugely desirable last eight clash against France.
England are enjoying some extra time off after their final pool game against Les Bleus was cancelled thanks to Typhoon Hagibis. The two-week break is no bad thing at all for England, with several of their squad suffering from stomach bugs and injury following their convincing win over Argentina last weekend.
For all the hand wringing about contingency plans and the integrity of the tournament going on elsewhere, Edidie Jones seemed pleased as punch by the whole not playing thing: “Who would think we would have two relatively easy games, one tougher one and then have two weeks to prepare for a quarter-final?" the Aussie effused to the media when it was announced the French game was off.
You also can't ignore his sense of glee in digging out the Scotts for losing to Ireland and leaving themselves open to such weather based elimination. He clearly hasn't forgotten his journey home following the 2018 Calcutta Cup.
As former England fly half Andy Goode pointed out, the biggest barrier to England winning the World Cup was the fact that they were the only team in the tournament who would have win five consecutive games against Tier 1 sides, in five consecutive weeks, to lift the crown.
That challenge has now dropped to 4 in 5 with a fortnight off in the middle and now looks much more manageable. Are the stars beginning to align for Jones men?
His charges will now fly to Miyazaki, in the southern island of Kyushu, where they were based for their pre-tournament training camp as they prepare for what will almost certainly be Australia in the quarter finals.
Probable Quarter Final Draw
England v Runner-up, Pool D (AUSTRALIA)
New Zealand v Runner-up, Pool A (JAPAN)
Winner, Pool D (WALES) v France
Winner, Pool A (IRELAND) v South Africa
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