No quarter given in World Cup knockouts

The Rugby World Cup quarter-finals will be a merciless place to be with this weekend, when four heavyweights will be culled from the competition.


    On Sunday morning, 60 men will wake up in their hotel rooms, pack their XL shirts into their suitcases, and say goodbye to their dreams.

    Sixty more will do the same on Monday, at about the time that some of the first batch are arriving home.

    This weekend is the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The eight squads that remain have slugged it through the group stages, but now this is knockout. And even the best can be knocked out.

    To say it doesn't get any bigger than this would obviously be a farce. There are two semi-finals and a final to come.

    But in terms of quarter-finals, it really has never been bigger at any previous World Cup. The teams playing each other in Auckland and Wellington truly represent the best eight national teams on the planet. 

    Four of those will go home – 120 players who believed they could lift the trophy. Afterwards, the focus is not going to be so much about the winners, as about the losers.

    For New Zealand, the prospect of defeat to Argentina is almost unthinkable. The All Blacks haven't won the trophy since the first tournament in 1987. 

    This is the team that knows it is the best in the world. If only it could prove it.

    But confidence is mixed with fear. One Kiwi news presenter on Thursday suggested she would find another country to move to if the Pumas – who finished third in 2007 – win at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday.

    Last month I had the gall to ask Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe what his team's target was at the Rugby World Cup. "To be champions," he said, alongside a stare that made it clear they didn't like being underestimated. 

    But if the All Blacks go out, much of the spark will go out as well. Some of the team have suggested it won't really be a World Cup without them. It was still a World Cup after they lost to France four years ago, but this is on home soil. This is where rugby is in the blood.

    There's one team that you'd think had already gone out of the tournament, such is the slating they are getting in the media.

    On non-rugby matters, England may deserve the flak. But on the pitch, they have the mark of champions. They win matches when they are playing badly.

    England are not New Zealand, and they never have been (although their new away shirt is doing its best). They are scrappers, they are pragmatists, and they are patient. 

    Muhammad Ali used to play rope-a-dope with his opponents in the boxing ring. He would soak up the punches on the ropes, and then hit back when it counted. 

    England would rather run in try after try, but the fact is that they respond best to pressure. That could see them reach their third consecutive final – or France could send them home on Saturday. 

    The French have looked terrible, but England full back Ben Foden warned on Thursday that they could "cause carnage". And England fly half Jonny Wilkinson, France's destroyer at the last two World Cups, has been on target with just 45 per cent of his kicks this time.

    In Wellington, holders South Africa face fellow double-champions Australia in what could be the best tie of the lot, but on-song Celtic rivals Ireland and Wales could trump that. 

    Both look like they could win a first title if they play to their capabilities. The losers in Wellington on Saturday will feel that another opportunity has been wasted.

    Dunedin out

    The entire knockout phase of the tournament is now on New Zealand's north island, leaving the rugby heartlands of Otago and Canterbury behind.

    Two quarter-finals were meant to have been held in Christchurch, before the loss of 181 lives in February's earthquake was combined with massive structural damage to the city that will take years to repair.

    England had been due to open their Pool B campaign against Argentina at Lancaster Park on September 9. 

    Standing on the ripped up pitch in the middle of cracked and crumbling stands a few days before that date, it was clear that could never have happened.

    Dunedin was handed the fixture instead, giving it a run of four matches at a stadium that could revolutionise sporting venues.

    It now seems a shame that none of the quarters could have been held in this amazing city. 

    You could do worse. Beautiful surf beaches. Friendly, funny people for whom sport is a way of life. Rugged fells surrounding a town that is known as the Edinburgh of the south. Incredible wildlife. And a stadium that manages to be cutting-edge with a soul. 

    That's unlike a lot of new grounds, particularly in football, that have sucked the joy out of matchday.

    Leaving there for the drive north on Thursday morning felt like leaving home. Leaving the people of Dunedin behind felt like leaving family.

    The Otago Stadium – which post-World Cup reverts to its original title of Forsyth-Barr Stadium – will be hard to beat for atmosphere this month.  

    Like Cardiff's Millennium Stadium to London's Wembley, Dunedin's masterpiece has staked a claim to take some of the action away from Eden Park in the future.



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