While often something of a procession, the Pool stage at the 2015 Rugby World Cup supplied plenty of drama. England will now have to watch on as the party they’re hosting continues in their absence after becoming the first World Cup hosts to exit before the quarterfinals. In another first, Japan became the only team in World Cup history to win three of their four Pool matches, including pulling off the greatest upset of all time when beating South Africa, and yet not secure a berth in the last eight.
In the end, none of the tier-two nations were able to make the breakthrough into the knockout rounds, but there are still four high-quality matchups to look forward to next weekend.
South Africa vs. Wales (Saturday, 11 a.m. EDT, Twickenham, London)
After the ignominy of their opening loss to Japan, South Africa have responded well with three straight convincing victories. The Springboks secured top spot in Pool B with a crushing 64-0 victory over the United States to finish as the second-highest points scorers in the Pool stage. And they appear to have overcome the loss through injury of captain Jean de Villiers. Overcoming injuries is something Wales know all too much about. Already having suffered key losses before the tournament, Wales were battered and bruised throughout the Pool stage. Yet, against the odds, they are still going. A memorable come-from-behind victory over England means no team will take Warren Gatland’s side lightly. Still, having now lost Liam Williams to injury in a grueling defeat to Australia on Saturday, Wales will need to show all their powers of resolve to make a second straight semifinal.
New Zealand vs. France (Saturday, 3 p.m. EDT, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff)
New Zealand may not have been spectacular in the Pool stage, but the favorites to become the first country ever to retain the World Cup still cruised through to take spot ahead of Argentina. France, meanwhile, did little to shake the impression that this is far from a vintage French side, lacking the inspiration of previous incarnations. An in-the-end convincing loss to Ireland on Sunday left them having to settle for second spot in Pool B and the most unenviable draw in the quarterfinals. It should be straightforward, and yet there are plenty of reasons why New Zealand will not exactly been thrilled with the identity of their next opponents. New Zealand were also overwhelming favorites to claim the trophy in 2007 before being stunned by France in the last eight. Indeed France also beat the All Blacks in the semifinals in 1999, while they so nearly upset them in the final in Auckland four years ago.
Ireland vs. Argentina (Sunday, 8 a.m. EDT, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff)
Ireland’s Pool stage was always likely to come down to its final game against France. And so it proved with Joe Schmidt’s team coming through with flying colors to top their section and avoid the All Blacks as they seek a place in a first ever World Cup semifinal. That’s the good news. The concern for Ireland is the loss of Peter O’Mahony for the rest of the tournament and that Paul O’Connell is likely to follow on Monday after a scan on his injury. Key fly-half Johnny Sexton may also have to sit out the quarterfinal. And it would be dangerous, too, for Ireland to take their opponents lightly. Having pushed New Zealand in their opening match, Argentina cruised through their next three games to finish with the most points of any team in the first stage. Clearly benefiting from getting regular competition against the southern hemisphere powers in the Rugby Championship, Argentina will fear no one.
Australia vs. Scotland (Sunday, 11 a.m. EDT, Twickenham, London)
No team has been more impressive that the Wallabies thus far at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Drawn into the toughest of pools, Australia provided full evidence of the momentum they have been building in recent months, outmuscling and outplaying England before a week later accounting for Wales, including putting on a show of great resilience to hold down out when down to 13 men. Able to combine skill going forward and toughness in defense, Michael Cheika’s team will take some stopping. And it is difficult to see Scotland being the side to halt their run. After an impressive opening victory over a tired Japan, Scotland have been well beaten by South Africa and only just edged out Samoa on Saturday to book their place in the last eight.
TV and live stream info: In the USA, all of the eight knockout matches are available to live stream, here, for a fee of $99.99, with individual matches starting at $32.95. For information on how to watch via pay-per-view, contact your TV provider.