Power Rankings: RWC reaches sudden death
The quarterfinalists are sorted with the drama of upsets, Scottish disappointment, a rousing Japanese surge and a Wallabies team yet to fire their best shots at the Rugby World Cup.
Predictions for the most competitive World Cup ever have been spot on and the quarter-final match-ups weren't settled until the 40th and last pool game in Yokohama on Sunday night.
The Wallabies and England open the quarter-finals in Oita next Saturday before Ireland shoot for their third win over the All Blacks in three years in Tokyo.
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Next Sunday, Wales tackle France in Oita before hosts Japan strive to keep the fairytale alive against South Africa in Tokyo.
The Japanese were playing for something bigger than the World Cup in the 28-21 thriller against Scotland after the deadly winds, rain and flooding that hit the country on Saturday.
"There was the typhoon and there must have been so many victims. We'll keep on working and give Japan the courage through rugby, and getting the result," standout No. 8 Kazuki Himeno said.
The margins between the Tier One nations and the challengers were as close as they have ever in the pool stages and how could you ever call Fiji a Tier Two side after the thrillers played against the Wallabies and Wales. Tonga's bold showing to just be shaded 23-21 by France, Uruguay's upset of Fiji, Japan's four wins on the bounce amid delirious scenes and Namibia being just 10-9 down to the champion All Blacks after 35 minutes is further testament.
JIM TUCKER'S WORLD CUP POWER RANKINGS
1 NEW ZEALAND (3-0) THE TEAM TO BEAT
Coach Steve Hansen gave his team a rev when they "didn't turn up with the right attitude" in the first half against minnows Namibia. They snapped out some cracking second half tries to reach 71-9 including a snapshot of why the quick feet of two-try winger Sevu Reece are so dangerous. The classy high-percentage offloads by Matt Todd and Anton Lienert-Brown for the second Ben Smith try is why the All Blacks are better than the Wallabies. Clinical and safe-handed. The All Blacks are the alpha-force at the tournament again and showed it right from the first giant match-up of the tournament. They repelled South Africa's periods of strength to win that one 23-13. Beauden Barrett is proving danger-plus for all rivals. The Irish are a danger.
▲▲▲ 2 JAPAN (4-0) EPIC MOMENTUM
No other team beat two Tier One nations in pool play. Power Rankings measure form and few other sides have played to their optimum better than the Japanese. The 19-12 win over Ireland was one of the great days in Test rugby for pure atmosphere and meaning and it was followed by a 28-21 stunner over Scotland. Chop tackling around the ankles, faultless, fast ball-movement for long periods, a top game plan from coach Jamie Joseph and heroic performances are coming match after match. The hosts are already creating World Cup stars. Winger Kotaro Matsushima, inspiring flanker Michael Leitch and No. 8 Kazuki Himeno, with his 10 runs against Scotland, have been huge in a fast, precise team to keep enjoying.
▼▼▼ 3 WALES (4-0) CHALLENGING SCHEDULE
The 29-25 overthrow of the Wallabies was the one pool challenge they had to meet and they did it magnificently. They'll now avoid the All Blacks in the semi-finals if they roll that far. Bleat all you like about Welsh halfback Gareth Davies being offside for the intercept try that helped sink the Australians. The fact remains, he intercepted two passes and grassed another. He was coached expertly for just that mission knowing the flat passing ways of the Australians. Two games in four days to finish the pool phase is the most taxing schedule of any of the big Cup fancies before quarter-final week.
4 ENGLAND (3-0) HIDDEN TRICKS
England were out of the 2015 World Cup by this stage. Eddie Jones and his crew are still keeping plenty of killer plays well hidden. They easily beat Tonga (35-3) and the US (45-7) without showing much but the 39-10 win over Argentina was a step up. Backrowers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry are a force tackling and menacing at the breakdown. Coach Eddie Jones is 6-0 against Michael Cheika's Wallabies.
5 SOUTH AFRICA (3-1) DANGER TEAM
There were moments against the All Blacks in the 23-13 pool loss where you thought the Springboks were coming. Powerful, bonded and with strike power. The Boks will have a say in who wins this tournament or indeed reach the final. You'd say their physically imposing game will overpower Japan but that won't be the case unless they are smart to go with it. Pocket rocket Cheslin Kolbe is already one of the stars of the tournament, including that neat-stepping to evade two Italian defenders for a try.
6 AUSTRALIA (3-1) ONE SHOT
Beat England in an epic quarter-final and the Wallabies can claim a successful World Cup and lucid planning. Lose and it will be rated a mess. There is no doubt the Wallabies are a happy, bonded team. Against Uruguay, you only had to look at how teammates celebrated young gun Jordan Petaia's first Test try and the drought-breaker for James Slipper in his 94th Test. Still need to find a cure to the slow-start curse and the ill discipline that cost two yellow cards for high tackles against Uruguay and another against Georgia. Are finishing fast with a collective 87-25 surge of points to "win" all four second halves. Forwards like prop Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold and Michael Hooper have been excellent and the pack is leading the way.
7 FRANCE (3-0) UNPREDICTABLE AS EVER
The French dealt with fast-finishing Argentina 23-21 in their opener but have been less imposing since. Only winning 23-21 was a reflection on how well the Tongans played against the French. The World Cup format suits the unpredictable French because it can reward epic one-night stands and streaks of momentum and emotion. Could easily knock the Welsh train off the tracks in the quarter-finals.
8 IRELAND (3-1) RALLYING
There was plenty to like in the 47-5 win over Samoa. The Irish play strictly to their structures with plenty of big, close-in ball carries and set piece work. Halves Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were excellent and their partnership is the key if they are to threaten the All Blacks. Being the top nation with the least World Cup history of success to draw on is a major handbrake. It showed too against Japan. The Irish never risked enough to beat the host country and star Jacob Stockdale starved on his wing. What do the Titanic and Irish rugby have in common? Both went down 1912.
▲▲▲ 9 FIJI (1-3) BRILLIANT VIEWING
Winger Semi Radradra, with his power running and evasive skills in a granite body, is one of the stars of the tournament, regardless of what happens in the finals. The Fijians contested strongly and led both the Wallabies and Wales in the second half before faltering. Dropped the game to Uruguay. Magnetic to watch. If only …
▼▼▼ 10 URUGUAY (1-3) THE BIG IMPROVERS
The greatest moment in the South American nation's rugby rise was upsetting Fiji 30-27. So much heart and so against the odds. Brilliant defence at times. The World Cup became a success for Uruguay with that one afternoon in Kamaishi. Their breakdown work and defence early shackled the Wallabies before that one was lost 45-10. Trailed Wales just 7-6 at halftime. Great benefits from sending a group of their amateur players to Major League Rugby in the US to train as professionals.
▼▼▼ 11 ARGENTINA (2-2) FIZZERS
Jolted by the loss to France, they never had a shot against England when a red card left them with 14 men for more than an hour. Extremely disappointing tournament for the 2015 World Cup semi-finalists.
▲▲▲ 12 SCOTLAND (2-2) A FAIL
Lost badly to Ireland (27-3) to start and outplayed 28-21 by Japan when it mattered. The tries and good defence against Samoa (34-0) and Russia (61-0) don't count for much now. Shame not to see more of five-eighth Finn Russell in this tournament.
▲▲▲ 13 TONGA (1-3) UPLIFTING
The Pacific islanders came close to upsetting France when beaten 23-21. Coach Toutai Kefu was right to demand more Tests against major nations to make such a performance more common. Brave and physical when beaten by England (35-3) and Argentina (28-12). Beat the US (31-19) with a 95m kick-and-chase try the highlight.
▼▼▼ 14 ITALY (2-1) NEVER FIRED A SHOT
Any chance of the Italians pulling off an upset with so much Six Nations experience? Nope. The 49-3 loss to South Africa was typical albeit they were ruined by an early injury to a key prop and red card to another Andrea Lovotti. So much has been invested in the Italians with no World Cup statement to show for it. Two bonus point wins over lesser nations. Skipper Sergio Parisse was scathing that the Italians had been dudded with the cancellation of a "live" pool game against the All Blacks with no rescheduling plan.
15 SAMOA (1-3) REALITY CHECK
A disappointing campaign and the heavy-tackle kings could not get their heads around the tough reckless and high tackle crackdown. So much talent in the side but getting the full-strength team together so rarely is too much of a handbrake these days. The upset kings of previous World Cups have lost that mantle.
16 GEORGIA (1-3) FIGHTERS
Traditional strengths at scrum and with mauling paid off with a 33-7 win over Uruguay. Made over 200 tackles in stout 27-8 loss to the Wallabies in the rain. As fullback Soso Matiashvili promised: "We had wars and were defending our country all the time so it's quite natural for Georgian people to love to fight, to wrestle."
17 NAMIBIA (0-3) HEROIC FIRST HALF
Someone will have taken a photo of the scoreboard: "NEW ZEALAND 10, NAMIBIA 9" after 35 minutes of their match. Came to play and deserved their applause before the score ran to 71-9. Shame about the cancelled game against Canada.
18 UNITED STATES (0-4) OUTCLASSED
The World Cup has been waiting since 1987 for an American team to produce an eye-popping upset that would put rugby on the map even for a day in the US. And still we wait. Losing to England (45-7) and France (33-9) doesn't suggest the Americans are getting any closer and Tonga shut the door on any success with a deserved 31-19 win. US coach Gary Gold revved up calls for the US to be considered as a World Cup host after seeing the lift the code has got in Japan.
19 CANADA (0-3) OFF THE PACE
There was a time when the Canadians physically ripped into top nations at the World Cup. Those days seem gone. Plenty of teams have felt the cold edge of class at the hands of the All Blacks (63-0) but much better was expected in the heavy loss to Italy (48-7). All class in helping the locals with the clean up in Kamaishi after the typhoon swept through and cancelled their final game.
20 RUSSIA (0-4) MINNOWS
The Russians battled let's be honest. They will always have memories of playing the World Cup opener against Japan in front of a full house in Tokyo.