NZME rugby writers Patrick McKendry and Liam Napier answer the big Rugby World Cup questions ahead of the quarter-finals.
What chance do you give Ireland of beating the All Blacks?
McKendry: Ireland will need something special and they haven't shown much of that here yet. They pummeled Scotland in the rain in Yokohama in their pool match, but the Scots were very poor that night and the conditions suited the Irish perfectly. They are predictable on attack and their forwards could struggle with the pace of the All Blacks. There will be expectation on the Irish too, although that may have subsided a little recently. I don't give them much of a chance.
Napier: Similar to Japan. That says more about Japan than it does Ireland. Joe Schmidt's men have been far from impressive this year but given they've knocked over the All Blacks in two of their past three tests, only a sucker would write them off. Andy Farrell's defensive line speed has proved incredibly difficult to break down, both with Ireland and the Lions, and Schmidt is sure to have a few trick plays up his sleeve. The knockout arena is a different beast. Nothing else before matters now. Rain, cards, intercepts, anything can happen in one-off games. Ireland may feel the burden of expectation but if they can establish an early lead, their confidence may grow. If there's one aspect that should worry Ireland, though, it's the All Blacks have dramatically advanced their attack since their loss in Dublin last year. Ireland are yet to experience the Richie Mo'unga-Beauden Barrett axis live.
What are the main issues the All Blacks have to get to grips with?
McKendry: Match fitness shouldn't be an issue but the ability to quickly get to grips with a quarter-final's intensity may be. Who knows how that cancelled Italy game will affect them? Lock Brodie Retallick should be okay despite a lack of recent minutes but the question is whether he'll be able to back it up should the All Blacks progress. It's doubtful their young wings Sevu Reece and George Bridge will be fazed by it all.
Napier: Line speed is front of mind when it comes to Ireland but the breakdown is equally vital. Ireland are notorious for lying in the ruck and attempting to slow the pace of the game. They know the secret to stifling and, therefore, beating the All Blacks is to counter the speed of their ruck by any means possible. While turnovers are king so, too, is allowing your defensive line enough time to reset. The high ball area, with Conor Murray sure to box kick all night, is another focal point. If Sevu Reece gets the nod, he will be targeted.
How did Japan become the most exciting team in world rugby?
McKendry: By being well-coached, but not over-coached. In other words, they have a gameplan that suits them perfectly, but they play with flexibility and instinct so it's not over-prescribed. They showed incredibly fast feet and hands against the Scots, but they were also incredibly quick of thought and reaction. They are accurate and play with utter commitment. That's good to watch.
Napier: Simply put, Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown. The same duo that masterminded the Highlanders' first and only Super Rugby title success have done it again with Japan. Joseph, with his hard-nosed attitude, has trained Japan at a level he believes is 20 per cent above test rugby to ensure they are super fit. Brown is one of the best minds in the game, particularly from an attacking perspective. Japan use the ball. They offload. They back themselves. They are relentless. They attack with ball in hand and on defence. When it comes off, rugby is a beautiful game.
Where could they trouble South Africa?
McKendry: With their pace and energy. They never stop. Amazingly, given their tier two status, they appear to be one of the best balanced teams at this tournament. Their attack is based on pulling defences this way and that but they can play directly too and their own defence is among the best at the World Cup. The Boks could find all of that a bit overwhelming.
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Napier: Speed of their ruck ball is the obvious source of Japan's game. The Boks will do everything they can to challenge the breakdown and slow the pace. Japan know the Boks will come for them at the set piece, too, especially the lineout which struggled at times against Scotland. As they did against Scotland, Japan may target the short side and defensively attack the 10 channel where most teams tend to try and threaten. They will chase the width and look to get their brilliant finishers, Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka, into the game as much as possible. Japan are dangerous for two other reasons: they are riding a wave of hugely inspiring home support and, after upsetting Ireland and Scotland, their belief has never been greater. Japan were exposed by the Boks in their pre-World Cup test defeat but this will be a completely different game.
But seriously, what chance do you give them of repeating the Miracle of Brighton?
McKendry: Joseph's team are a better side compared to the one which shocked the world in Brighton in 2015. They also have not only a whole nation behind them but probably about 99 per cent of all neutrals. This could be one of the best quarter-finals we've ever seen. It could be very close. They could definitely do it.
Napier: Slightly less than even odds. The big questions facing Japan are can they continue to play at this consistently high level, and can they maintain the first-half intensity they showed against Scotland? Japan have never played this many tier one nations in succession, and it could take its toll. They are normally confined to the Pacific Nations Cup. The Boks are a significant step up from Scotland in terms of physicality and world-class figures alone. If Japan can bring the speed, width and tempo for longer they could blow the Boks away. But they can't afford to fade as they did against Scotland. If they do, the Boks will put them away.
Australia v England – who wins and why?
McKendry: England – their pack will be too powerful, their midfield too bruising. Australia will need a very special performance. They're capable of it but the constant changing of their backline means they're a team in a constant state of flux.
Napier: Australia have lost six straight tests to England – their last victory coming four years ago in the World Cup pool stages. That tells you everything you need to know about their vulnerabilities. In a one-off fixture, they have a puncher's chance. Conditions under Oita's roofed stadium should assist their game. England are yet to be tested but I suspect they'll have too much power up front and class in their back three for the Wallabies.
What about Wales v France?
McKendry: I was going to say Wales because they're a well-drilled, solid outfit. But they're also incredibly predictable so I'm going for France. Mutiny is apparently alive within their camp, so that should bring out the best in them.
Napier: Wee bit more uncertainty with Wales flattering to deceive in their last labouring win over Uruguay. France are France – revolting at a World Cup again which could, potentially, inspire some form of emotive player response. Warren Gatland has, however, been building Wales for this stage for some time. Wales embrace a game manufactured for knockout rugby and have a proven recent history of coping with pressure, so I'll back them to advance to the semifinals.