Australia will be delighted to get through to the Rugby World Cup quarters and to be facing the Scots instead of a re-energized South Africa. It wasn`t pretty but it was gripping, and we saw a side to the Wallabies that will greatly encourage all the green and gold fans in the weeks ahead.
Against Wales, for the second week in a row the Wallabies pack fronted up and gradually got dominance in the scrums. This will be hugely significant going into the cauldron of knockout rugby. Michael Cheika now knows that he has the backs to open defences up, like Foley did against England, and the forward power to take on anyone, particularly if the finals follow the trend of attritional battles like in past World Cups.
For a lot of this absorbing encounter the Wallabies were under the cosh, having to make big tackles to stop the plucky Welsh from getting over the try line. A couple of times they were literally over the line only to be held up by some heroic defence. I remember writing last year about the conditioning and fitness of the forwards under the McKenzie regime, with the Aussies failing to finish close games out. How things have changed under the Cheika reign, and for that he deserves huge accolades.
The last two weekends have been very intense games where the fitness and intensity have been ramped up several notches, given the quality of the pool group. Watching the Wallabies drive the beleaguered England front five off their own ball in the closing minutes was a dagger through England`s disastrous campaign and also confirmation of how the Wallabies have evolved their game. Attitude, of course, plays a big part when defending your line but so is the confidence to defend a five-metre scrum safe in the knowledge that you won`t get driven back.
What we have seen is Australia being able to play the traditions of southern hemisphere rugby with incision and inventiveness to the fore. Crucially, the Wallabies have also adapted their abilities to play toe-to-toe against the northern hemisphere might of the English and Welsh forwards and come out on top. To be able to do that in 12 months of being charge speaks volumes to Cheika`s ability to pick the right personnel and bring in the required coaching levels to execute both game plans.
Australia v Scotland @ Twickenham (London), Sunday 4pm GMT
The Wallabies must not underestimate Vern Cotter and the Scots when they head to Twickenham for this Sunday’s quarterfinal. For all of their promising progress under Cotter, the Scots still struggle to win games against the big teams.
There are signs that Scotland are developing more fluency to their backline game to complement the more traditional strengths of their pack. They have some cracking players as well, with the likes of David Denton and Jonny Gray up front and Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott in the backs.
The challenge for Scotland is being able to play with Australia for the full 80 minutes. Judging on this campaign and the way the Wallabies shut both England and Wales out in the final quarter, the odds are firmly stacked on a Wallabies win.
For the Aussies, there are concerns on the fitness of Israel Folau but they have good cover in the form of Drew Mitchell and with Michael Hooper who can come back in and form his formidable partnership with David Pocock. The breakdown will again be absolutely key to this match and Scotland have to find a way of neutralizing the threat of those two terriers in the back row.
The other quarterfinals throw up yet more intriguing contests to look forward to
South Africa v Wales @ Twickenham (London), Saturday 4pm GMT
I am immensely looking forward to Wales and South Africa slugging it out.
The Springboks have gone back to the high carry/smash it up through the middle approach since the Japan debacle and they have done it very impressively. They will be led into battle by the ageless Schalk Burger with Eben Etzebeth and Lood De Jager thundering around to great effect.
However, Wales turned South Africa over last autumn and they are relishing the underdog tag. If they had been more clinical against the Wallabies, they would be the one`s facing Scotland.
The challenge Wales has is finding some creativity and, arguably, fit outside backs to complement the forward effort. George North has to come to the party, and if he does then I would back Wales to win a tight one.
New Zealand v France @ Millennium Stadium (Cardiff), Saturday 8pm GMT
As has been said so often in the past the All Blacks, in theory, should have a comfortable run-out against the French. Why we love the French so much though is because they are awful one week (and they were against the Irish) and unbelievably good the next.
There will be many in New Zealand just a little nervous about what France have done in the past against the All Blacks. Personally speaking, I cannot see a way in for Thierry Dusautoir`s men as the All Blacks are just quietly going through the gears at the moment.
Ireland v Argentina @ Millennium Stadium (Cardiff), Sunday 1pm GMT
Argentina love playing Ireland at the Rugby World Cup and they have greatly impressed in the group stages.
The Pumas are scoring lots of tries through the backs, capitalizing on the good work that their pack have been doing up front. They have El Mago – aka Juan Martin Hernandez – back to guide an exciting backline that includes Juan Imhoff and Marcelo Bosch which will test Ireland`s resolve, even more so given the departure of talismanic figure Paul O`Connell.
Ireland were simply magnificent against the French, particularly with so many of their key players succumbing to injury. They are well prepared and coached and it is such a close one to call.
I think Ireland have found a way to beat the southern hemisphere teams consistently and they have strength in depth, as Madigan showed when coming on for the stricken Johnny Sexton.
So, to the predictions
I think the Wallabies will come through relatively easily against the Scots and will play Ireland in the semifinals.
New Zealand will surely beat France and will play Wales in the other semifinal.
That said, the underdog has often risen to the fore in this Rugby World Cup – just ask South Africa and England – so it would not surprise me in the least bit if every result goes the other way.