TOKYO, 21 Oct – From the indomitable Springbok juggernaut to the despair among French fans at their team's capacity for implosion, the latest breathless weekend of action at Rugby World Cup 2019 encapsulated all that is enthralling, yet brutal, about knockout competition.
It was a weekend when ghosts were exorcised – in the case of England and Wales – and hopes were raised and then dashed in the cruellest of fashions. From generational shifts to outstanding comebacks, here are the main analytical talking points from the quarter-final stage.
Wales have developed such a habit of courting heartbreak at the World Cup that all but their most cavalier supporters would have awaited Sunday’s quarter-final clash with France with trepidation.
After all, France eliminated Wales by a single point in the 2011 World Cup semi-finals. Meanwhile, four years ago Wales led South Africa 19-18 with five minutes to play in the last eight at Twickenham before Fourie du Preez’s late try dashed their hopes once more.
When France raced into a 12-0 lead, Wales fans feared the worst. Their thrilling rally to complete an unlikely 20-19 victory, above, was the biggest comeback in their Rugby World Cup history. While they overcame a 16-0 half-time deficit to beat France 24-19 in the Six Nations in February, they had never previously overturned a deficit of more than 10 points at a World Cup.
Such reversals are remarkably rare in the knockout stages of a Rugby World Cup. There have only been two bigger comebacks in the knockout stage – both from France, who recovered from 14 and 13 points down to beat New Zealand in 1999 and 2007, respectively.
Changing of the guard
Over the past seven years, the legendary Wallabies pairing of Michael Hooper and David Pocock has been one of the dominant forces in international rugby, their excellence as breakdown scavengers playing a key role in helping Australia reach the final of Rugby World Cup 2015.
Many wondered how the relatively inexperienced pairing of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, pictured right and left below, would match up in Saturday’s England-Australia showdown. After all, with just 28 caps between them, against 180 for Hooper and Pocock, the gulf in experience verged on a chasm.
Yet Curry and Underhill, pictured below, outclassed their respected counterparts, making no fewer than 36 tackles as England reversed their defeat by Michael Cheika's team at Twickenham four years ago. It was a joint performance that signals a changing of the guard.
Underhill was arguably the pick of the England tacklers, with 20 alone, while Player of the Match Curry was outstanding, repeatedly beating Pocock to the breakdown and producing an outstanding tackle to deny Marika Koroibete a certain second-half try.
Ireland’s quarter-final misery continues
In the face of New Zealand's ruthless excellence on Saturday, it was hard not to feel for Rory Best – one of international rugby’s outstanding servants over the past 14 years – as he ended his test career with a 46-14 defeat by the All Blacks.
Best's post-match tears were almost a metaphor for Ireland’s repeated failure to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. Their seven quarter-final eliminations - including the past three tournaments - are a record, beating Scotland’s six defeats at the last-eight stage.
While Ireland went into the match full of hope after stunning New Zealand in Dublin last November, their usually miserly defence fell apart as the Kiwis ran in seven tries. It was the most points Ireland have ever conceded in a World Cup match and means that, for all Best's excellence, the closest Ireland have come to breaking their quarter-final hoodoo remains the 19-18 defeat by Australia at the 1991 World Cup.