Rugby World Cup
Greg Growden ranks quarterfinalists, says Argentina dark horses
Greg Growden
October 11, 2015
World Cup Quarter Finals Preview

We have a four-four-hemisphere mix for the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, but I'm still going for the south to dominate the final weeks of this tournament. New Zealand and Australia are peaking at the right time, with Argentina hovering, while Ireland and Wales are the biggest threats from the north as long as they can both find 15 fit men to take the field.

1. New Zealand

It's not often you see All Blacks coach Steve Hansen agitated during a game - as his team of talent usually only has to be pointed towards the players' tunnel for them to win. But so off-colour have the All Blacks been during this World Cup that Hansen genuinely looked concerned early in the final pool match against Tonga; still, in typical All Blacks fashion they got it together when required to win the game comfortably. The All Blacks are currently spluttering along in second gear, but they are gradually getting it together. Daniel Carter is looking more assured, Ben Smith is so authoritative at full-back, the-back row functions even when Richie McCaw is not around, and fine finishers such as Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea are starting to make an impact. They remain the team to beat.

New Zealand are working themselves into the tournament, Greg Growden believes © Getty Images
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The Wallabies huddle as they celebrate victory, Australia v Wales, Rugby World Cup, Twickenham Stadium, London, October 10, 2015
The Wallabies huddled to celebrate victory against Wales © Getty Images
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2. Australia

The Wallabies have been the tournament's most impressive team. They have shown the ability to play either the beautiful or brutal game, while they have been the big improvers up front and boast for the first time in years a scrum that won't be pushed around. After succeeding in sending England into a tailspin with a 20-point thrashing in which their attacking inventiveness was at the fore, they then showed against Wales that their effective defence can also win matches. Holding Wales out when down to 13 men was one of Australia's most courageous World Cup moments. In their favour is a relatively comfortable ride to the final, but a major concern is the fact that injuries to important players - including Israel Folau, Matt Giteau and David Pocock - could destabilise them.

3. South Africa

Dad's Army keeps marching on. After their deeply religious coach, Heyneke Meyer, prayed to the heavens to save his team from a public stoning on their return home following the embarrassment of losing to Japan in the first round, the Springboks have gradually regained their footing. Meyer did not help himself early in selecting too many old men past their prime, but at least one veteran - scrum-half Fourie du Preez - has been able to provide some adrenalin to an often ponderous game plan. Their power-based bash-and-barge game is sometimes too one dimensional, but if they remember to use their creative wingers - JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana - they will be a finals menace.

Bryan Habana needs to see more ball, Greg Growden says © Getty Images
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4. Argentina

Good teams usually have a good time, and that's certainly the case with the Pumas - especially when Diego Maradona is in town urging them on. Their post-match celebrations, with Maradona leading the singing, is, well, different. He has promised to return if Argentina makes the semi-finals - and that is a distinct possibility as the Pumas boast the pack, the depth and the No.10 in Nicolas Sanchez to advance at least another week. Their Rugby Championship experience has turned them into a formidable line-up. All they have to do is improve the consistency of their lineout. They deserve "dark horse" status.

Argentina's Pablo Matera charges upfield, Argentina v Namibia, Rugby World Cup, Leicester City Stadium, Leicester, October 11, 2015
Pablo Matera and Los Pumas are genuine dark horses, Greg Growden believes © Getty Images
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5. Ireland

In this Last Man Standing World Cup, Ireland have been hit at the worst time by big-name injuries - with Jonny Sexton, Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony all casualties during their mighty win over France in Cardiff. To Ireland's credit, they rallied brilliantly after the departure of the big three, completely nullifying France in every aspect of the game, which will provide them with an enormous amount of confidence before the finals. After such a dreadful performance against Italy in London in the previous pool match, Ireland, inspired by a tenacious performance from their openside flanker, Sean O'Brien, were far more resourceful against France, and showed they will really test Argentina in their quarter. But the loss of Sexton, O'Connell and O'Mahony must eventually take its toll.

Paul O'Connell may have played his final test for Ireland © Getty Images
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6. Wales

The Welsh are the best scrappers in the World Cup. No one has fought harder, shown more enthusiasm and been more of a pest. They have been unlucky with injuries - they are now down virtually to their bare bones - but they keep on producing, helped along by their No.10, Dan Biggar, being a tournament standout. They could easily have been a real World Cup title threat had they boasted their best XV for the bulk of this tournament, but the attrition rate is starting to hit hard now. Their victory over England was astounding, rallying in the final minutes at a time when a multitude of their players were either receiving medical attention or had been forced off through injury, and they could have also defeated Australia had they not suffered white-line fever, constantly going back on the angle rather than pushing the play out to the wings to enforce the overlap, during the eight minutes when the Wallabies were down to 13 men. Wales are now on the hard side of the finals draw, and they now sadly lack the artillery needed to have any hope.

Gareth Davies scored the winning try against England © Getty Images
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7. Scotland

They have a good coach in Vern Cotter, an excellent scrum-half in Greig Laidlaw, a fair amount of speed, an able set-piece and an abundance of enthusiastic triers, but there are serious questions over whether they have the class to go any further. Samoa, one of the real World Cup disappointments, exposed Scotland's inadequacies during their final pool game, when the Pacific Islanders went close to inflicting an enormous upset. There didn't seem to be much of an elaborate plan to the Scotland attack, and their defence was often slovenly - missing numerous makeable tackles. However, Scotland have a way of upsetting Australia, enjoying recent victories over the Wallabies, and they will go into their quarterfinal not exactly feeling like rank underdogs. Australia also won't under-estimate them, as Scotland are one of their real bogey teams.

Greig Laidlaw is key for Scotland against Australia © Getty Images
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8. France

After being completely overwhelmed by Ireland in their final pool match, France appear to have no chance of coming anywhere near New Zealand in their quarter next Saturday. Their defence is fine, but their attack, usually the strongpoint of the French game, was virtually non-existent in Cardiff. Whenever they had possession against Ireland, which was very rare, they wasted it due to an inability to hold the ball for anything longer than a second or two. Even before this game, the French attack looked stodgy. Ireland showed also that France's lineout can be destabilized - something the All Blacks are bound to pounce on. The All Blacks would have also noted that France flounder often when pressure is applied. France, World Cup finalists four years ago, are bound to be mere finals spectators this time around.

Wesley Fofana and France were humbled by Ireland in Cardiff © Getty Images
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