European sides on high alert of last-eight exodus at Rugby World Cup
It has never happened before, but the northern hemisphere stands on the brink of embarrassment.
The southern hemisphere teams are in a strong position to bundle all four European sides out of the Rugby World Cup at the quarter-finals stage this weekend.
South Africa kick off the knockout rounds at Twickenham against an injury-ravaged Welsh side on Saturday night, and New Zealand bid to exorcise the ghosts of defeats to France in 1999 and 2007 later at the Millennium Stadium.
On Sunday it is Ireland, now the world’s third-best side according to the World Rugby rankings, who are the only Six Nations team to enjoy the burden of favouritism in their match against Argentina in Cardiff.
Scotland then have the difficult task of trying to dethrone Rugby Championship winners Australia at Twickenham.
Since the inaugural tournament in 1987, there has been a European representative in the final four at each World Cup, with England the only team to go on to win it in 2003.
New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have won the World Cup twice each, but only in 1995 was there an all-southern hemisphere final when Francois Pienaar’s Springboks went a small way to uniting a nation by beating New Zealand at Ellis Park.
Wales captain Sam Warburton has done what anybody in his position can only do when he suggested this week that history is irrelevant.
Wales have beaten South Africa only twice in over 100 years of playing each other.
Wales are not the only side with more losses in the ledger than wins.
France have lost their last eight against the All Blacks since they miraculously downed New Zealand in Dunedin in 2009.
Scotland have a long track record of defeat against Australia, but they have won two of their last three and will be buoyed by the absence of flanker David Pocock and full-back Israel Folau, who have both failed to recover from injury.
Which leaves Ireland.
Ireland’s defence were majestic last weekend against France, and it is a sign of Jonathan Sexton’s mental toughness that he has shrugged off his injuries to take up his position at fly-half.
Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony were not so fortunate, and with flanker Sean O’Brien suspended for his punch on Pascal Pape, Ireland’s rucking game that has generated lightning fast ball all tournament may not operate quite so smoothly.
The knockout rounds have become more competitive, in line with the mismatches between Tier One and Tier Two teams in the pool stages. The average winning margin was 16 points in 1999, whereas it was just over a converted try last time in New Zealand.
It is left to Philippe Saint-Andre, who as a player helped orchestrate the famous ‘try from the end of the world’ in 1994 to beat New Zealand, to issue the rallying cry.
“You have to dig deeper in your resources and to get into a trance,” the France coach said. “We have a couple of days left to find this additional soul, generosity, craziness, mischief and intelligence to have our opponents lose their self-confidence.”
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