Plenty to play for as the World Cup heads into last 16
SPOTLIGHT: There is still plenty to play for as the pool phase in France enters its final week.
Thirty-two World Cup matches played, 16 to go – and a week to come featuring matches in all four pools that are effectively knockout games.
Japan and Argentina face a straight winner-takes-all quarterfinal shootout in Nantes on Sunday, after picking up crucial Pool D victories over Samoa and Chile respectively.
Jamie Joseph’s Brave Blossoms held off Samoa in Toulouse, winning 28-22, after being 17-8 ahead at half-time. That result gave England, under former Japan forwards coach Steve Borthwick, a leg-up to the quarterfinals with a game still to play – against Samoa in Lille on Saturday.
Selection choices for that match will be interesting. England could rest a few players, with top spot in Pool D secure, while Samoa will be going all out for a win that could mean they finish third, and qualify automatically for World Cup 2027 in Australia.
Argentina, like New Zealand, has struggled to gel so far in France. But they still have a shot at the last eight after a 59-5 win over Chile in Nantes, the first match between two South American sides in a World Cup.
Flyhalf Nicolás Sánchez marked his 100th cap with the game’s opening try. He also kicked a penalty and six conversions as Los Pumas crossed the whitewash eight times.
He was subbed in the 77th minute – but there was still time for replacement Santiago Carreras to convert two tries, including one of his own, before referee Paul Williams signalled the end of the match.
Fiji knows a bonus point against Portugal in Toulouse on Sunday will ensure a third World Cup quarterfinal, at the expense of Australia. But they were made to work hard for their win over Pool C rivals Georgia in Bordeaux at the weekend.
The Eastern Europeans took a deserved 9-0 first-half lead before Waisea Nayacalevu’s second-half try kick-started a comeback, Fiji eventually winning 17-12.
Head coach Simon Raiwalui admitted his side had struggled: “If I am being honest we were beaten to the punch in the first half. We knew it was going to be a battle. I am just thankful we have the result.”
A point or more for Fiji will mean that Australia will exit the World Cup at the end of the pool phase for the first time ever, despite a bonus-point 34-14 win over a thoroughly impressive Portugal in Saint-Étienne.
The players in green and gold had it far from their own way at a rowdy Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Three tries in seven first-half minutes after Portugal were temporarily reduced to 14 – including a fine flowing team effort finished off by prop Angus Bell – settled Australian nerves, while Fraser McReight’s touchdown early in the second period looked to settle the matter.
But the Portuguese weren’t about to roll over, and scored their second with 10 minutes remaining to jangle Wallaby nerves, before Marika Koroibete soothed them again with a 74th-minute try.
“We’re still alive,” a relieved Wallabies’ coach Eddie Jones said afterwards. “We’re anticipating we will be in the quarterfinals so we have plans to have three days off and then three days training. We’ll see on Sunday night.”
It’s a three-way race for two quarterfinal places in Pool A, too, after New Zealand beat Italy 96-17, in a manner as convincing as the scoreline.
A devastating 17-minute first-half burst saw the three-time World Cup winners score 35 unanswered points, book-ended by the first and third tries in a hat-trick for scrum-half Aaron Smith.
Will Jordan, Ardie Savea, and Dane Coles also scored twice, as New Zealand ran in 14 tries.
Skipper Savea, named Player of the Match, was delighted with his side’s performance in what he described as a ‘do or die game’: “We had not really clicked but tonight we played some free rugby and that’s how I want my boys to play. We’ve put a lot into this week and got the rewards.
“We wanted to come out and make a statement. We wanted to dominate up front. Our forwards had the platform and the backs finished it off. It was really good but we let it slip in the end so we are never satisfied, never comfortable. There are little areas to get better.
“It was a final for us, it was a do-or-die game. We have got to play like this every weekend.”
The All Blacks now have an appointment with Uruguay in Lyon on Thursday – an expected win there should confirm their quarterfinal status.
Italy could reach the last eight, meanwhile, if they beat France, and deny their hosts a bonus point, at the same venue 24 hours later.
In the round’s other Pool A match, Namibia led 14-0 early on against Uruguay – and were 23-12 ahead shortly after half-time.
But their bid for a first-ever World Cup win in 26 attempts ultimately fell short, as a combination of Uruguayan forward power, clinical finishing and composure, mixed with their own indiscipline – in the second half Desiderius Sethie was sent off, while Tjiuee Uanivi and Johan Coetzee were both sin-binned – meant the Welwitschias lost 26-36.
As in Pool A, so in Pool B, where doctoral-level maths are required to work out all the permutations. South Africa and Scotland both picked up expected bonus-point wins over Tonga and Romania respectively to set up an intriguing final week of matches.
The defending champions’ pool phase is over – they top Pool B with 15 points from their four matches, after a routine seven tries-to-three 49-18 win over Tonga in Marseille on Sunday night.
All they can do now is watch as Ireland, on 14 points, face Scotland, on 10, at Stade de France on Saturday, with multiple quarterfinal possibilities on the table.
Darcy Graham ran in four of Scotland’s 12 tries, to equal Gavin Hastings’ RWC record v Côte d’Ivoire in 1995, and fly-half Ben Healy contributed 27 points, including a try of his own on his World Cup debut, as they beat Romania 84-0 in Lille to set-up the crucial decider against Ireland.