Commentary

Are the Wallabies and All Blacks headed for a titanic semi?

The pretenders have fallen away into the rainy mud of France, while the contenders are still alive, sore and stiff but motivated. Peter Lion tells us what we need to know about the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals.

Originally Published: October 1, 2007
By Peter Lion | ESPN.com

From the start of the Rugby World Cup last month, it was clear that this would be a tournament not soon forgotten.

On the field, there were the pool-round romps: New Zealand waxing Portugal (108-13) and Australia rolling over Japan (91-3), to name a couple. But there was also the stunning shutout of RWC defending champs England by the Springboks of South Africa, 36-0, as well as Ireland's deserved early exit. And as rugby's thoroughbreds began pulling away from the pack, there were a few standout performances and moments of note:

• Georgia holding the Argentina juggernaut to a 6-3 lead at the half (although the Pumas eventually won 33-3), battling tough against Ireland before finally chalking its first-ever RWC victory, against Namibia
• Team USA's tenacity in the face of the heavily favored England in their opening match
• And Japan's Shotaro Onishi's match-ending conversion kick that forced a draw in a slug-fest with Canada

World Cup playoffs

Bronze match
Friday, Oct. 19
France vs. Argentina, 3 p.m. ET
Final
Saturday, Oct. 20
England vs. South Africa, 3 p.m. ET
Stade de France, St. Denis, France

With the pool rounds wrapped, rugby's elite eight are preparing for this weekend's quarterfinals. With the southern hemisphere teams clearly outplaying their northern counterparts, it's now anyone's tourney to win. The worst part for the losers is that they will have to wait until 2011 for their next shot at the Webb Ellis Cup.

A breakdown of the quarterfinals matchups:

Saturday, Oct. 6
Match 1

Australia vs. England
Expectations are high for the No. 2-ranked Wallabies, and they had little to worry about in their pool matches, using them to fine-tune their play for the tough march ahead. Their first-place finish in pool B has them in a showdown with defending champs England, whom they've beaten in four out of their last five meetings. England's opening match against an underpowered U.S. Eagles team wasn't the confidence builder the team hoped for, and their struggles continued with a lopsided shutout loss to South Africa in their next game. Wins against Samoa and Tonga carried them to the quarters, where they limped in as the second-place finishers in Pool A. In this knockout-round matchup, look for the Aussies, the only two-time RWC champions, to dominate a prideful but reeling England and move on to the semifinals.
Players to watch
Drew Mitchell, Australia. The winger leads the team in tries, with five.
Jonny Wilkinson, England. The veteran fly-half and hero of the 2003 RWC champion squad is back from injury and once again playing as one of the game's elite.
How they can win
Australia: The Wallabies are firing on all cylinders heading into the quarters and must hold firm using a notoriously stingy defense and powerful scrum.
England: This team must find the winning form that took it this far in the last RWC. Avoiding costly penalties would be a good start.

More RWC coverage

For more Rugby World Cup coverage, drop by Scrum.com.

Preview of the final: Can England win?

Match 2

New Zealand vs. France

As expected, the All Blacks blew through pool C, overpowering the field and clearly staking their claim to the Cup. This might be the best All Blacks team to ever enter the RWC. France, on the other hand, vented its frustration following an embarrassing opening-match loss to Argentina by body-slamming the rest of the pool, including a 25-3 dismantling of Ireland. With their "blue-wall" defense and speed of their backs, they stand as the only northern hemisphere team able to go toe-to-toe with the All Blacks. Oddly enough, this quarterfinal match is the only one taking place outside of the host country, at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.
Players to watch
Nick Evans, New Zealand. The All Blacks bench is loaded with talent, but the ever-present Evans made his mark in the pool rounds, racking up 50 points.
Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, France. Les Bleus' tournament-leading point scorer (42) has been a kicking machine.
How they can win
New Zealand: The All Blacks cannot take the match lightly, as there's no room for error in the knockout round.
France: The hosts must not lose the momentum and composure they gained in the pool round -- and keep their set play tight.

Sunday, Oct. 7
Match 3

South Africa vs. Fiji

The Springboks were in full control of their destiny throughout their pool A matches. Their only chance of a test came against England, but that proved a mockery as the Springboks humiliated the defending champs, shutting them out 36-0. Now, the Springboks are in a must-win match against Fiji, a team that surprised many by upsetting Wales 38-34 and finishing second in pool B. The win came at a cost, however: Star fly-half Nicky Little was knocked out of the tourney with a knee injury. This is Fiji's second trip to the knockout round, the last coming in 1987, when they were undone by France.
Players to watch
Percy Montgomery, South Africa. Sure, the Springboks are loaded with world-class players, but Montgomery's lethal kicking and RWC-leading 67 points make him a must-see.
Kele Leawere, Fiji. With all-time point scorer Nicky Little out, second row Leawere will look to add to his three tries scored with his continued wide-ranging play.
How they can win
South Africa: The Springboks have shown they can dominate with speed, crisp passing and a brick wall on defense. Look for little to change in their approach.
Fiji: Breakaway play and quickness has gotten Fiji this far. They'll need plenty more and avoid the sin bin if they have any chance to advance.

Webb Ellis Cup
APRugby World Cup teams have their eyes on the Webb Ellis Cup, named after the man who invented the game.
Match 4
Argentina vs. Scotland

This is the second quarterfinals appearance for Argentina, having reached in 1999 and defeating Ireland, only to lose to France in the next round. This time the Pumas are playing some of their best rugby ever and enter as the top finishers in pool D, having knocked off big guns France and Ireland. Scotland, on the other hand, has never failed to make it to the knockout round and went as far as the semifinals in 1991. The Scots were a question mark coming into this year's tournament, but quickly answered critics with a persistent though sometimes error-prone attack, finishing second in pool C behind New Zealand.
Players to watch
Felipe Contepomi, Argentina. The Pumas fly-half has been cool under pressure, racking up 53 points during their march to the quarters.
Chris Paterson, Scotland. The fly-half has been one of Scotland's most consistent kickers and elusive runners, and he'll need to be again.
How they can win
Argentina: The Pumas' relentless drive and endurance outpaced that of their pool rivals. However, they'll need to keep their play focused and cut down on mishandles to beat Scotland.
Scotland: The Scots must keep pressure on Argentina and not allow the Pumas to dictate the pace of play. Look for Scotland to clog the middle of the pitch to try to cut down the Pumas' punishing lateral game.

2011 Rugby World Cup

With the pool rounds done and dusted, the 2011 RWC in New Zealand is already taking shape. Beginning with this year's RWC, the top three finishers in each pool automatically qualify for the 2011 RWC:

Argentina
Australia
England
Fiji
France
Ireland
Italy
New Zealand
Scotland
South Africa
Tonga
Wales

Peter Lion is an ESPN.com rugby contributor and director for "Outside The Lines."

ALSO SEE