ITV.com/rugbyworldcup editor Luke McLaughlin previews and predicts for Saturday's quarter-finals: England v France and Wales v Ireland
Ireland v Wales
It seems a shame these sides should meet in a quarter-final. Both are playing superb rugby, both camps are brimming with belief and confidence.
The match will be billed as a battle of the back rows, and it has all the ingredients of producing one of the great Rugby World Cup encounters. Wales captain Sam Warburton has been outstanding at No 7, alongside No 8 Toby Faletau who staggeringly made 50 successful tackles in the pool stage without missing a single one. Ryan Jones at No 6 is a former Welsh captain, a British & Irish Lion and a proven performer in big matches like this.
Set those three against the enormously powerful and dynamic Ireland back row of Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip and it's almost impossible to call who will come out on top. But it will be worth watching.
Coaches constantly bang on about how the margins are tiny in international rugby. Experience and calmness under pressure can be the difference between winning and losing, on which basis Ireland should be slight favourites.
Brian O'Driscoll is Ireland's captain but they are not short of leadership elsewhere: Munster's Paul O'Connell in the second row is the leader of the pack, the experienced Gordon D'Arcy alongside O'Driscoll in the centre. Even the likes of full-back Rob Kearney has been around the block and won a Grand Slam.
In the back divisions, George North has been one of Wales's best players on the wing while Tommy Bowe is one of the most consistent wingers in world rugby. Shane Williams of Wales is determined to finish his international career on a high note, and poses just as much threat as North. Fit-again Wales full-back Lee Byrne, an outstanding performer on the 2009 Lions tour, will thrive if he gets good quality ball.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney believes space will be shut down because the players know each other so well from the 6 Nations and domestic competitions. That suggests he will start with Ronan O'Gara at fly-half, with Jonathan Sexton coming off the bench after the break. Although O'Gara's composure may prove crucial if, as many expect, the match comes down to one or two scores.
Both sides will see a golden opportunity to make their first World Cup final: both will feel if they can get through this match then England or France will be there for the taking in the semi-final. It's too close to call, as Shaun Edwards wrote earlier this week, but we're backing Ireland's experience in key positions to give them the edge.
Prediction: Ireland by 3
England v France
Judging on form this is the least inspiring of the quarter-finals. But a battle to be the least worst Rugby World Cup quarter-finalist might prove absorbing: England v France games tend to have a bit of extra spice.
England are stubborn, and if nothing else they have shown the ability to grind out narrow late victories in this tournament. History is on their side, too, having won three out of four previous Rugby World Cup meetings with France.
France may appear to be in disarray and were particularly poor in their concluding pool match as they lost to Tonga. But there are some encouraging signs for them. One of England's many problems at this tournament has been their ill-discipline. If they manage to irritate referee Steve Walsh by pushing their luck at the breakdown, or if the recent weakness in the front row surfaces again, it could be a very long night for Martin Johnson's men. And it's not particularly difficult to irritate referee Walsh.
Having said that, it is of course up to France to capitalise on any English weaknesses. Imanol Harinordoquy returns at No 8, a big-game player of vast experience and a powerful presence who can be devastating when he is in the mood. Aurelien Rougerie was a slight doubt to start at outside centre but has been passed fit, and his defensive ability will be important against Manu Tuilagi, perhaps England's most dangerous attacking weapon.
With Toby Flood named out of position at inside centre for England his opposite number Maxime Mermoz is likely to test Flood's defensive channel at every opportunity.
The French half-back pairing of Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra has yet to bear fruit: but the combination of England's Ben Youngs and Jonny Wilkinson has hardly set the world alight either. Youngs under-performed against Scotland but has been integral to some of England's best rugby in the last year, his confident sidestep sparking Chris Ashton's brilliant breakaway try against Australia at Twickenham last November. If Youngs plays well England tend to play well.
Harinordoquy's counterpart Nick Easter replaces James Haskell in England's back row. This seems a bizarre decision by Johnson as Haskell is one of the few players who has enhanced his reputation during the past month. But Easter's record against the French is good, and his second-half effort against Scotland has won him back the shirt.
In the 2007 semi-final at Stade de France, the French tactics were wrong. Aside from the first 20 minutes, they failed to stretch a tiring England defence by spraying the ball wide. Coach Bernard Laporte was rightly criticised. England may be a smarter team in the tight games but the question is: can France produce one big performance? The law of averages says yes - the formbook says no.
It may be true that Lievremont has lost the respect of his players, and has lost control of them. But for that reason they may be at their most dangerous.
Prediction: France by 8
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