Rugby World Cup France 2007

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Exciting games will decide the pass to the quarter-finals

Friday night's Rugby World Cup game between England and Tonga opens a weekend of vital matches that will decide which squads will make it to the quarter-finals of the tournament.

Yes, if fans are excited by the prospect of these do-or-die matches, so are the players.

"Everyone in Tonga is waiting for this match," Tonga's number eight Finau Maka admitted. "It's the biggest game in Tongan rugby. We can't wait."

Indeed, three of the eight quarter-final spots have already been filled, with two-time champions Australia, title favourites New Zealand and South Africa guaranteed to finish atop their pools.

But holders England, hosts France, upstarts Tonga, Fiji, Italy and Argentina as well as perennial also-rans Scotland, Ireland and Wales are all fighting for survival in the final pool clashes of this World Cup.

In addition to the England-Tonga Pool A encounter in Paris, Wales face Fiji on Saturday in Nantes and Scotland take on the Italian team in St. Etienne on the same day in a decisive Pool C match. The winners of these matches go on to the knock-out stage; the losers go home.

The situation in Pool D is more complex. If France beat Georgia on Sunday in Marseille they will advance, while Ireland must defeat the Pumas from Argentina later Sunday in Paris by more than seven points and score at least four tries to oust the Pumas and reach the quarter-finals.

In addition, because they beat France in the tournament's opening encounter, if Argentina win on Sunday they not only send the Irish packing but also condemn the French to second place in the pool and a quarter-final match against New Zealand, with the likelihood of being knocked out of their own Cup at an embarrassingly early stage.

England come into Friday's match on the upswing after a disappointing start to the tournament. After being kept out of the first two matches with a sad injury, fly half Jonny Wilkinson returned to the lineup to lead England to a 44-22 victory over Samoa.

That triumph followed a demoralizing 36-0 defeat at the hands of South Africa.

If England lose, they will become the first holders not to advance beyond the pool stage and Tonga will make their first-ever appearance in the quarter-finals. The winners will face Australia on October 6 in Marseille.

It's good to mention that Wales look to be heavily favoured over Fiji, especially in light of their excellent showing against the Wallabies, losing by 32-20, while Fiji only squeaked past minnows Japan 35-31.

However, the Pacific islanders have recalled 11 first-choice players they rested from their 55-12 loss to Australia on Sunday, and they have less to lose than the Welsh, who will view defeat as a humiliation.

In Saturday's Pool C derby, Scotland need only to tie Italy to advance, and they have so far looked the better side of the two. In addition, they rested key players against New Zealand to better prepare for Italy.

As Scotland coach Frank Hadden said, "It was always going to boil down to this match. What both teams have done up until now counts for nothing."

As we know, Italy have made great strides under French coach Pierre Berbizier, and won their last meeting 37-17 at Murrayfield in the 2007 Six Nations tournament. If the Italians win, they will make their first appearance in the World Cup quarter-finals.

It would be an enormous upset if France did not beat Georgia on Sunday. It would also be a big setback for the hosts if they did not score four tries to notch the bonus point that could make a difference between first and second place in Pool D.

We must remember that the runner-up faces the Kiwis, the pool winner gets to play either Scotland or Italy, a much more inviting prospect.

The Ireland-Argentina game, which kicks off just minutes after France-Georgia ends, is certain to be the most hard-fought game of the weekend.

The two sides have met 14 times, with the Irish winning seven and the Pumas six, with one draw. Nine of those 14 games were decided by seven points or less.

Based on performance in this World Cup, Argentina look to be favoured. The Pumas come into the match with the best defensive line of the tournament, having conceded only 18 points in three matches, with no tries.

In addition, Irish substitute prop Rory Best was taken ill and hospitalized this week with what appears to be a heart ailment.

Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan said this did not help preparations for the match. "We have an issue we did not expect to have and a team-mate in hospital," he expressed. "We will have to get ready for the game. It will go ahead regardless."


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