Ifan Morgan Jones
This Saturday is a rugby feast that only comes around once every four years – four matches of world-class knock-out rugby between the eight best teams on the planet!
And every match here is dripping with history and significance. Can Japan repeat the heroics that beat South Africa in Brighton in 2015? Can Ireland beat New Zealand for the third time in three years? Can Wales exact revenge for the way France knocked them out of the 2011 semi-final?
And then there’s the old rivalry between England and Australia, and their quarrlesome coaches. Who will be ready to blow up when the full time gong sounds – England’s Eddie Jones or Australia’s Michael Cheika?
England v Australia – Saturday, 8.15am
Almost every World Cup seems to feature a titanic tussle between these two teams – Australia beat England at the 1991 final at Twickenham and England returned the favour in 2003 in Sydney.
In 2007 England knocked Australia out, and in 2015 Australia delivered the coup de grâce to England in the group stages of their home World Cup.
This time, England arrive in the semi-finals without having broken a sweat, having not had to play France at all and with Argentina down to 14 men from the 19th minute.
The big question here is will England be undercooked or after a two week rest will they be firing on all cylinders against a bruised and battered Australian side?
Australia have lost six matches against England since Eddie Jones took over and could be smothered by the ‘white orcs on steroids’ once more.
However, for England, Owen Farrell’s form is a concern and Billy Vunipola is returning from an ankle injury he picked up against Argentina.
Australia often do better than expected at World Cups, too. They’re usually there or thereabouts somewhere in the semi-final draw, and were finalists last time.
If they can avoid the yellow cards, and find their form again here, yet another run at the final could be in the offing.
Winner: Australia knock England out with a last-minute drop goal (just to see the look on Eddie Jones’ face).
New Zealand v Ireland – Saturday, 11.15am
Ireland have beaten New Zealand in two of the last three matches but we’ve seen nothing this year to suggest that they’re the team they were at the tail end of 2018.
In the last few months they have been well-beaten by Wales, England and even Japan.
The All Blacks are not invincible however. They lost heavily against Australia in the Rugby Championship (partly due to a red card).
And, as South Africa have showed in their matches against New Zealand recently they can be held at bay by a strong defence. However, as South Africa have also shown, if concentration slips for half a second or one pass goes astray the men in black will cut you to ribbons.
If Johnny Sexton is at his best with his kicking game and Ireland’s rush defence is solid they can knock New Zealand off balance.
And if Ireland do shock everyone and win this one the World Cup will be wide open and they could seriously challenge for the Webb Elllis Trophy.
But while the Ireland of 12 months ago could have done all this and more, I get the feeling that they peaked too son, and will probably maintain their 100% record of never reaching the semi-finals.
No, New Zealand aren’t invincible. But they are the best team in the competition and more likely than not to win not just this game but to life the World Cup for the third time in succession.
Winner: New Zealand will score an early try and despite Ireland’s valiant efforts will remain a good score ahead all game.
Wales v France – Sunday, 8.15am
‘Which France will turn up?’ is the somewhat cliched refrain we always hear when France are struggling.
They have, however, been struggling for a long time. They haven’t beaten a top side since England on the first weekend of the Six Nations in 2018.
They should even have lost to Argentina in the group, but were rather lucky that their rivals missed a number of kicks at goal.
Out of all the teams Wales could play in the quarter finals, they would probably want to play France, even more so than a giant-felling Japan with their nation behind them.
Everything is going right for Wales too, with a fully fit squad including Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar back from injury. They have the best defence in the competition and Gatland has a tendancy to win the games that really, reallly matter.
Under these circumstances, not reaching the semi-finals would be gutting for Wales, and crushing for coach Warren Gatland in his final tournament in charge.
And yet, and yet, and yet… it’s France. They descend into chaos at World Cups, dumping coaches and captains, and go through some kind of magical metamorphasis in the knockout stages into a rugby butterfly that can beat any defender.
They also seem to have at least one big performance at every World Cup and they have not as of yet produced it. France could start throwing it about and stretch the Wales defence as Australia did in the second half of their match.
We could also ask ‘Which Wales will turn up?’ The focused Wales of the first halves of the Georgia and Australia games or the chaotic, nervous Wales that went to pieces for 10 minutes against Fiji?
Anything can happen! But let’s hope it doesn’t.
Winner: France by 3 (because it’s the hope that kills you).
Japan v South Africa – Sunday, 11.15am
There was no luck involved in Japan’s demolitions of both Ireland and Scotland. They were genuinely the better team, and zipped the ball around at a New Zealand-esque speed when attacking the line.
Their matches have been a lot of fun to watch because they barely ever kick, keeping the ball in hand and using quick little inside passes to break defences.
However South Africa are great party poopers and as the most physical team at the World Cup I do fear that they will eat this Japanese team for miso soup and grilled fish breakfast.
The two teams met in a warm up match last month and South Africa beat the Brave Blossoms by 41 points to 7 by squeezing the life out of them like a big green boa constrictor.
Japan have already achieved more than they could have imagined possible at this World Cup and will bow out here with their heads held high and with big plans for the future.
South Africa meanwhile will probably be thinking about a rematch with New Zealand in the final.
Winner: The South Africa juggernaunt to win by 18.
So, what do you think? Post your own predictions below!