x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ready for the final stretch

The teams play their last pool games as the quarter finals are decided, Scotland look to upset England as they meet for the first time on neutral ground.

South African player Jannie du Plessis, centre, takes part in a training session yesterday. The Springboks face Samoa today.
South African player Jannie du Plessis, centre, takes part in a training session yesterday. The Springboks face Samoa today.

The Rugby World Cup paused for breath yesterday with a rare rest day as attention turned to the preparations of the 13 teams hoping this weekend's final round of pool games will send them into the quarter-finals.

Scotland and England, who played rugby's first international match in 1871, meet for the 129th time but their first on a neutral ground in Auckland tomorrow.

England, who lead Pool B after three wins, need only a draw to top the group while Scotland will almost certainly need a win and a bonus point to maintain their record of reaching at least the quarter-finals of every World Cup.

Martin Johnson, the England coach, said he had not spent any time considering group variables.

"It's knockout rugby, let's not worry about points differences and things like that. We've got to win, they've got to win, it's what World Cups are about," he said.

While England have reached their fourth game relatively unscathed, Australia have been so hard-hit that Robbie Deans, the coach, was forced to name Radike Samo, the 35-year-old loose forward, on the wing for tomorrow's game against Russia.

"We've got four backs coming back to us next week, so it shouldn't be an issue going forward, unless we have a train smash this weekend," Deans said.

South Africa should take their place by beating Samoa today, but Bryan Habana, the winger who scored four tries in his side's 59-7 victory over the islanders at the last World Cup, said he expected a hard night's work.

"That first 20 minutes against Samoa in 2007 was some of the toughest Test match rugby I have ever played," he said.

Samoa have lost all six of their previous meetings with the world champions, but Fiji have enough form against Wales to give them belief they could spring a surprise that could sneak them into the last eight.

Fiji stunned the Welsh in a 38-34 pool thriller in 2007 and followed up with a 16-16 draw in Cardiff last November.

It seems a long time ago that Welsh fans dubbed Graham Henry "the Great Redeemer" during his time as their national coach in 1999 and tomorrow's game against Canada marks his 100th in charge of the New Zealand.

It would not be a World Cup without reports of friction in the French camp but Dave Ellis, their defence coach, said there was nothing in them.

Ellis was just about the only person at the tournament prepared to talk publicly about the way the route to the final has been split into "European" and "Tri-Nations" halves.

"I imagine it's had some sort of effect [on France's performance against New Zealand], knowing that if you get to the quarter-finals you're going to be playing England and then in the semi-finals it's either South Africa-Australia or Ireland-Wales," he said.

"No disrespect to Ireland or Wales but I know which everybody's choice would be."