The Rugby World Cup has reached the quarterfinals.
On Saturday, it’s Wales vs. Argentina and top-ranked Ireland vs. three-time champion New Zealand.
On Sunday, it’s England vs. underdog Fiji and host France vs. defending champion South Africa.
Here are the big things to know:
The southern hemisphere has dominated the Rugby World Cup, winning eight out of nine tournaments and the last four in a row.
There have been three titles for New Zealand, three for South Africa and two for Australia. England is the odd one out with a 2003 triumph for the northern hemisphere that is a distant memory.
But there’s a strong chance there might not be a single nation from the south in the semifinals this time and that would be a huge moment for rugby.
It’s north vs. south in each of the quarterfinals and the team from the northern hemisphere is the favorite in each.
No. 1 Ireland is on its best winning run of 17 matches, came back to clinch an historic series victory in New Zealand last year and is favored against the All Blacks this weekend. France is No. 2 and has home advantage — and the best player in the world — against South Africa.
England and Wales are higher-ranked and unbeaten in this World Cup heading into quarterfinals against Fiji and Argentina, respectively.
This weekend could then signal a major power shift in the ongoing north vs. south battle.
No team has embodied the rise of the north more than Ireland, which has been No. 1 for more than a year.
It’s crunch time for the Irish, who have never made it past the quarterfinals and face what are clearly the two biggest weeks in their rugby history, starting with the All Blacks.
As Ireland reaches for new heights, New Zealand — rugby’s most celebrated team — could record its worst ever performance at a World Cup if it loses. Australia has already been knocked out in the pool stage for the first time.
FRANCE’S MAIN MAN
France is not complete without captain Antoine Dupont, a brilliantly talented attacking player who is regarded as the best in the world.
His tournament was in doubt — and host nation France was in a panic — when he broke his cheekbone in a game against Namibia three weeks ago. He underwent surgery the day after, has come through a frenzied period of recovery, and has been cleared to play against South Africa in the last quarterfinal on Sunday.
If there’s one player worth watching, it’s Dupont. He’ll be slightly disguised, though, after his surgeon ordered him to wear a protective scrum cap as an extra precaution against the Springboks.
SHOT AT HISTORY
With their joie de vivre and spirit, the Fijians are the darlings of this World Cup. They could also be history-makers.
No Pacific Island nation has ever reached the semifinals of rugby’s biggest tournament, with Fiji and Samoa getting to the last eight and no further.
This is Fiji’s third appearance in the quarterfinals. It lost to France at that stage in 1987 and South Africa in 2007.
Samoa lost in the quarterfinals in 1991 (to Scotland) and 1995 (to host South Africa). The team was Western Samoa in those days.
It’s a big moment for tier two countries like Fiji, who are fighting for more opportunities to play against rugby’s major powers in the World Cup cycle. Since the game went professional after the 1995 World Cup, only twice have tier two teams reached the quarters: Fiji in 2007 and Japan in 2019.
Just about everyone expects this year’s champion to come from the Ireland vs. New Zealand or France vs. South Africa quarterfinals, the meetings of the current best from the north and south and the world’s top four teams.
That means hardly any pressure on England and Wales, who face much lighter-weight opponents in Fiji and Argentina.
England has been especially enigmatic this year, coming to the Rugby World Cup off one of its worst runs of form ever and suddenly finding itself unbeaten and with a strong chance of making the semifinals.
“These opportunities don’t come around too often,” England captain Owen Farrell said.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
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