By the end of this weekend, we will know which teams have qualified for the quarter-finals of this year’s Rugby World Cup, and who they will be playing in the last eight. There is room for a lot of churn even at this stage, with most countries having played three of their four pool games – at this moment, only South Africa, England and France are mathematically certain of their place in the next stage of the tournament, as opposed to the logical certainty that New Zealand, Wales and Australia can offer. Meanwhile, Pool A remains to be settled. Each of Japan, Ireland and Scotland (in order of likelihood) could yet finish first, and each could also end up eliminated if remaining matches don’t go their way.
At this point, each team is now looking at the formula for the quarter-final draw. The first-placed team from Pool A will play the runner-up from Pool B, and vice versa. The same formula applies for Pool C teams against Pool D. So, although England and France are definitely in the next round, their match this weekend has implications based on how Pool D finishes. Realistically, one of them will play Wales, and one will face Australia; based on the form of those sides in the last year or so, a quarter against the Wallabies is very much the preferable option. So it doesn’t make sense to ease off in the final pool match for either les bleus or the English – except, as we’ll see later in the post, that’s not what some people are saying. Anyway, let’s look at what the bookmakers are saying about the bigger games to come…
Thistle meets Blossom: who wins?
Japan currently top Pool A with 14 points, and their next match is against the Scottish side with just the five that they picked up in a bonus-point whitewash of Samoa. However, Scotland have another game to play before that, against Russia tomorrow. Gregor Townsend’s side needs to balance the obvious need for a bonus point win there with the fact that they have a four-day turnaround before facing the hosts in Yokohama. Assuming – perhaps bravely – that Ireland beat Samoa, Scotland will need to beat Japan and either pick up a bonus point (for scoring four tries), or deny Japan one (by winning with a margin of eight or higher) if they are to progress.
Whichever way you slice it, then, Scotland will need to take an attacking approach to their encounter with the Blossoms. If they want to score four tries, they’ll need to play an open game. If they want to win by a decent margin, then they’ll likely still need to score tries; Japan’s discipline has been excellent and Townsend can’t rely on the penalty count favouring his side. The bookies have the hosts as very marginal underdogs, but we’d disagree: against an opponent forced to play it loose, the endlessly energetic XV they can count on (and an added four days’ rest) will see Japan (19/20, 888) come out on top.
The wonder of Yu: Japan fly-half to be top scorer?
While we are on the subject of Japan and people underestimating them, the question of which player will top the tournament’s point-scoring chart has revolved around Beauden Barrett, Owen Farrell and to some extent South Africa’s Elton Jantjies. After the latter landed eight conversions in his side’s demolition of Canada, Jantjies sits on 44 points, four ahead of Tamura and way ahead of the rest of the pack – but Japan have a game still to play in their pool, while the Springboks have completed their opening round.
Of course, Barrett is expected to be in this competition for the long haul – as is his replacement Richie Mo’unga, also on 28 points. The bookies also seem to feel that England, and therefore Farrell, will have a few games left to play. What they haven’t considered is that, if Japan can beat Ireland, they have to be considered a threat in the knockouts, especially given that South Africa (remember 2015) are their likely quarter-final opposition. Tamura is 7/1 with Betfred to top the points totals at the end of the competition; given that Japan can be confident of winning their pool, there is absolutely no reason to think they can’t go as far as, or further than, England. New Zealand, for their part, have two kickers sharing the load, so Tamura may be a smart bet.
Le Crunch? England not likely to let up
French rugby is not in one of its vintage periods. In fact, it’s had a bit of a slow decade, last winning the Six Nations in 2010. Despite occasional blue-chip players, and isolated impressive results since then, France are presently not much of a rival to anyone but themselves. However, some people have been suggesting that England might not win this weekend’s showdown with les Bleus. Why? Well, as we mentioned earlier, the quarter-final and semi-final draws are structured in a certain way and, if England finish second in the pool, they cannot face the tournament favourites, New Zealand, until the final.
How might this affect England’s strategy for playing France? Well, experts agree that it will have the sum total of absolutely no impact. For starters, if England finish second in the pool they will in all likelihood face Wales, who have every right to claim they’re a better side than Eddie Jones’ XV. For another thing, England could only face New Zealand before the final if the All Blacks fail to top their pool. To underline the improbability of that happening, it would require the world’s best rugby team to lose, without registering a bonus point, against Italy. That’s not happening.
Therefore, England will approach their game against France looking for a win. In other words, they will win – and given the “hit them hard and early” approach Jones has been favouring, that win will probably be by more than the 13-point start William Hill are giving England (Evens) to win the Handicap market here.