England v Australia (Saturday 16:15, Oita)

Australia’s 33-13 victory over England at the 2015 World Cup meant that Stuart Lancaster’s side became the first home nation to exit at the group stages. Since then, it’s been the team in white who have had the upper hand, winning their last six encounters against the Wallabies.

Eddie Jones’ men haven’t really been tested yet in the tournament, overcoming Tonga, USA and Argentina with relative ease. They’ve also had an extra week to prepare for this one following the cancelation of their final pool match with France. As for Australia, it’s been a mixed bag up until now. They’ve generally been sluggish in the opening periods, before coming on strong in the second half of games. They lost to Wales and were behind for the majority of their encounter with Fiji.

England, who arguably have the strongest squad in the competition, are favorites to reach the semi-finals but will be wary of the Aussies who are more than capable of stepping up on the big occasion. Their 47-26 win over New Zealand earlier in the year showed just how good they can be. A lack of consistency continues to be the problem.

Previous World Cup Encounters

The two sides have met each other six times at the World Cup with three wins apiece. Two of those games were in the finals with Australia taking home the trophy thanks to a 12-6 victory in Twickenham in 1991. 12 years later at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney, England triumphed in dramatic fashion with Jonny Wilkinson drop-kicking the winning points in the last minute of extra-time. Current England coach Eddie Jones was managing Australia that night.

Key Players

Owen Farrell (England) Eddie Jones sprung a big surprise on Thursday when he announced the starting XV to play Australia minus George Ford. Owen Farrell, who was expected to play as a number 12, will now start as the fly-half in what is seen as a big risk by the England manager. Henry Slade will play in the centre alongside Manu Tuilagi instead of Farrell, who England will look to in order to provide the creative spark as a number 10. The Saracens man was out of sorts in his final game against Argentina, missing four consecutive kicks. He can’t afford to be so wayward against the Wallabies.

David Pocock (Australia) Like captain Michael Hooper, David Pocock is a master at turning over breakdown possession. Whether the pair are as effective when playing together has caused widespread debate in Australia. Writing in The Telegraph, Welsh legend Sam Warburton described Pocock as his toughest ever opponent ahead of Richie McCaw. One of the most visible public campaigners in sport, he was once arrested for a nonviolent protest against the expansion of the Maules Creek Mine in New South Wales.

New Zealand v Ireland (Saturday 19:15, Tokyo)

It’s two wins each in the last four encounters between these two sides. Ireland famously defeated the All Blacks for the first time in 111 years in Chicago in 2016, then beat them again on home soil 11 months ago. They have failed to rediscover that magic since, however, finishing third at this year’s Six Nations Championship, the same position New Zealand placed in the 2019 Rugby Championship.

At the start of this World Cup, some suggested the All Blacks were no longer the force they once were but an impressive victory over South Africa in the opening fixture silenced the doubters. Due to the cancelation of their game with Italy, they haven’t played since the rout of Namibia two weeks ago. Does that mean they will be undercooked or nicely rested?

The Irish will no doubt be hoping the former. Joe Schmidt’s men started off the competition well with a comprehensive win over the Scots before being shocked by the hosts. After an uninspiring win over Russia, they looked a lot better in their final pool match against Samoa, despite being down to 14 men. The suspension of Bundee Aki is a big loss but if they can somehow recapture the form of last year, they have a chance. New Zealand, though, remain strong favorites.

Previous World Cup Encounters

Surprisingly Ireland and New Zealand have only met once before at the Rugby World Cup. That encounter was a group game back in South Africa in 1995, the tournament when the magnificent Jonah Lomu announced himself on the world stage. On his World Cup debut, he scored two tries against the Irish in an emphatic 43-19 victory. The joint record try scorer in the tournament (with Bryan Habana), he was the first true global superstar of rugby.

Key Players

Beauden Barrett (New Zealand) Only the second individual to win back-to-back World Rugby Player of the Year awards, Beauden Barrett is a monster of a performer whether that be as a fly-half or a fullback. His brothers Jordie and Scott are also in the New Zealand squad with the three of them creating history in the game against Canada as they all bagged a try. Beauden is undoubtedly the star, though, even if there have been some questions marks over his kicking.

Johnny Sexton (Ireland) 2018’s winner of the World Rugby Player of Year award, Johnny Sexton is one of the leading international points-scorers in the history of the sport despite several injuries halting his career. He has twice toured with the British and Irish Lions and even appeared in the final two tests against New Zealand in 2017 despite suffering from a fractured wrist and a ruptured ankle tendon. The creative force in the Irish side, his partnership with Conor Murray will be crucial as the boys in green attempt to cause an upset.

Wales v France (Sunday 16:15, Oita)

Wales won all of their Six Nations games earlier this year while France lost three out of their five. The two teams met in the opening fixture with Les Bleus storming into a 16-0 lead at the break. They then threw all that good work away to let the Welsh back in the game and Warren Gatland’s men turned the screw to win the match 24-19.

It was a bitter pill for France to swallow, but down the years we have got used to these Jekyll and Hyde performances. You just don’t know what to expect from them and it’s been the same at this World Cup. They were magnificent in the first half against Argentina, but they allowed the Pumas back into the game and only won by the narrowest of margins. They did what they had to do against Tonga and America, but they were hardly victories to inspire confidence.

Wales’ best performance came in their thrilling win over Australia. Four games, four victories in a tricky group, it has been a satisfactory tournament so far, however, they will need to improve on their last two displays against Fiji and Uruguay if they are to be considered serious contenders. They are favorites to beat the French, but the unpredictability of Les Bleus makes this a tough one to call. As previous World Cups have shown, they can be a dangerous underdog.

Previous World Cup Encounters

It’s a defeat that still hurts the people of Wales. The first and last time they met France at a World Cup was the famous semi-final at Eden Park in 2011. The French were without a coach and in disarray going into the game. This was the perfect opportunity for the Welsh to reach their maiden World Cup final. The mood changed after 19 minutes, though, when captain and key player Sam Warburton was sent off for a tip tackle. Capitalizing on their numerical advantage, Les Bleus went 9-3 up thanks to three penalties from Morgan Parra. Wales responded bravely in the second half with Mike Phillips scoring the only try of the game. Stephen Jones hit the post with the conversion and Leigh Halfpenny’s kick was just short at the death as France hung on to win the game 9-8 and reach their third final.

Key Players

Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) Described by former England World Cup winner Will Greenwood (in his column in The Telegraph) as “the best player the northern hemisphere has produced in the 21st century,” Alun Wyn Jones has established himself as the captain and heartbeat of the Welsh side. At 34, this is probably the last chance for Wales’ most capped international player to lift the World Cup for his country.

Gael Fickou (France) The standout player for Les Bleus against Argentina, Gael Fickou is an outstanding inside-centre who made his international debut at 18. Running gracefully with pace and balance, he was once touted as a potential superstar of the sport. Now aged 25, this could be his stage to realize his undoubted potential.

Japan v South Africa (Saturday 19:15, Tokyo)

Four years on from one of the biggest shocks the sporting world has ever seen, Japan and South Africa are set to lock horns again, though this time the Springboks won’t be underestimating their opponents. Prior to that game, the Brave Blossoms record at the World Cup read one win, two draws, and 21 losses. Since then they’ve won seven out of the last eight and played some amazing rugby. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the former whipping boys of the sport.

The home side are in great form and will have a vociferous crowd behind them, yet South Africa still go into the game as strong favorites. On the eve of the World Cup, the two teams met in Kumagaya with the visitors running out easy 41-7 winners. The concern then was that Japan were still a long way behind rugby’s elite and they would struggle to get out of the group. They’ve proved a lot of people wrong with some magnificent performances, particularly against Ireland and Scotland.

South Africa lost their first game against New Zealand but played quite well in what was the big clash of the opening weekend. They’ve recorded three routine victories since and look in good shape as they prepare for Sunday. They should be strong enough to get through, but you never know. This is a Japan side that continues to upset the odds. The atmosphere inside the Ajinomoto Stadium will be electric. Can the Blossoms give their fans another night to remember? Here’s hoping for a cracker.

Previous World Cup Encounters

The 2015 World Cup is remembered for two things: New Zealand’s dominance and Japan’s stunning victory over the Springboks in Brighton. It was the team with the best record in the competition versus the side with the worst. With 851 caps in their starting XV, it was the most experienced Springboks’ team in test history.

The Brave Blossoms were given no chance. They somehow managed to stay in the game, however, and with eight minutes remaining the scores were tied. Japan then strayed offside and Handre Pollard kicked South Africa in front. The underdogs weren’t done yet, though. They had two opportunities to kick penalties that would have earned them a draw, far more than anyone would have expected.

Instead, captain Michael Leitch, who was brilliant throughout, opted for a scrum. After going right and then back out to the left, the ball arrived in the hands of substitute Karne Hesketh who went over to give Japan the most dramatic of victories. As the Guinness ad said, they “could’ve settled…. instead went for history.”

Key Players

Michael Leitch (Japan) It was the Brave Blossoms wingers that caught the eye in the group stages but the man who glues everything together in the side is their talismanic captain Michael Leitch. Inspirational after coming off the bench against Ireland, the New Zealand-born back-row recently placed second behind Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a poll listing Japan’s most recognized public figures.

Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa) Cousin of Olympic 400-meter champion Wayde van Niekerk, Cheslin Kolbe has easily been South Africa’s most exciting player in the tournament so far. In the opening game against the All Blacks, he made 118m in nine carries and beat 11 defenders in what was a truly mesmerizing display. The explosive winger was rested for their final pool match against Canada but is expected to be fit to face Japan on Sunday.

Feature photo by David Ramos – World Rugby via Getty Images