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Could we see a World Cup upset? Areas that could swing the quarter-finals

By Will Owen
Alex Tessier of Canada scores a try during the Pool B Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Canada and the United States at Waitakere Stadium on October 23, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand.

It’s crunch time. Inside eight days, the Rugby World Cup will go from a 12-strong tournament to only having four teams remaining. The quarter-final draw has left us in a situation whereby there are four clear favourites to progress to the tournament’s close, but each one is faced with a banana skin.

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At this stage, favourites England, hosts New Zealand and dark horses Canada have revealed very little of their gameplan going forward. France have shown a little, but have performed far from their best. Wales, Italy, Australia and USA all remain in the tournament with a dream to create an upset. Let’s have a look at one component which could well swing the momentum of each game.

France vs Italy – The kicking game
The first semi-final is undoubtedly the most contentious. France entered the tournament as arguably second-favourites, but now find themselves with a real game on their hands. Italy already have a win under Thomas Darracq’s side under their belts, with a warm-up victory going to the Azzurri. In this match-up, anything is possible.

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France, in theory, should be the best kicking side in the tournament. One wonders why World Rugby have persisted with calling their new law the “50:22” rather than just giving it the catchier name of the “Tremouliere”. France’s fly-half Jessy Tremouliere has proven herself to be the most prolific abuser of this law in the world, often hitting them for fun. The issue is, Tremouliere has only started for France once this tournament. Could this be France’s version of saving something back for the knockouts? Leaving out a world-class player?

Aside from Tremouliere, France have more kicking options out wide than anyone else. Pauline Bourdon at nine is one of the best box-kickers in the game, plus Emilie Boulard and Chloe Jacquet both have mega boots. Caroline Drouin has been typically off-colour thus far, but is capable of pulling out moments such as her beautiful cross-kick to assist Gaelle Hermet’s try against England.

On the flipside, Italy are an underdog in the kicking department. As the “smaller” sides go, they are blessed with kicking options. Aside from the obvious magician and “number one player” Beatrice Rigoni at centre, fly-half Veronica Madia has shown herself to be the perfect foil and more than functional under pressure. Michela Sillari has had a fantastic tournament at 13, and the trio have shown tremendous ability to find space in behind.

If France are to go far in this tournament, they’ll probably want to put a few testing bombs in the air and smash a few fullbacks. Vittoria Minuzzi is arguably the competition’s form fullback, so France can’t afford to give her a second on the ball in space. Both teams have the capability to kick seismic oppositions off the park. This is shaping up to be one of the world’s most exciting test matches.

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New Zealand vs Wales – Shutting off the backs’ space
Let’s not beat around the bush – not many will give Wales a chance of beating the Black Ferns on Saturday. It’s an uphill climb for Ioan Cunningham’s women, given their 56-12 pool stage defeat. The beauty of a quarter-final rematch is that Wales can learn from their previous mistakes and put them right.

New Zealand are the most talented side in the tournament. If you give Stacey Fluhler or Theresa Fitzpatrick a moment on the ball, she’ll run rings around you. The easiest way to prevent the likes of Portia Woodman from scoring is by shutting off her source. This was a struggle for Wales in their pool encounter, but let’s have a look at the impact of two players they left out who could make a difference:

In the above image, Australia have the ball around seven metres outside their own 22 looking to clear. This Australian team are always ready to run from anywhere, though, so Wales need to remain focused.

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Australia feed the ball to Bridie O’Gorman at first receiver. Alex Callender shoots up ahead of the rest of the line, giving O’Gorman two options: step inside and get isolated against three of Wales’ back-five forwards, or look to the outside. She feeds Grace Hamilton, who is marked by centre Carys Williams-Morris.

Hamilton is a great ball carrier, but not when you cut off her space. While the ball is in the air, Williams-Morris applies maximum line speed and smashed Hamilton back to inside her own 22. This was a theme of Williams-Morris’ whole game against Australia – she was excellent in defeat.

With Callender back in the fold, she’ll be slowing down the Black Ferns’ ruck speed at all costs. As the top tackler in the entire competition, if Callender’s contact skills are as sharp as they have been all tournament, Cunningham would hope this will allow the likes of Williams-Morris to make huge defensive reads like this. It’s the only way to stop the likes of Fluhler and Fitzpatrick.

England vs Australia – The driving maul
It’s no secret that England’s driving maul is their biggest weapon at the moment. With all but one of their tries against South Africa scored by forwards, any and every opponent they face will be forced to compromise their defensive strategies so they don’t get blown over.

We all know the threat of England’s maul, so let’s look at how their opponents, Australia, might defend it.

Earlier in this game, Wales scored a try from a dummy-maul, so Australia know they need to be alert of trick plays. Wales, however, have set a maul and started to make yardage. Emily Chancellor in six is working her way through the middle of the maul despite the attentions of Cerys Hale. As Australia start to wheel the maul, Chancellor tries to squeeze herself out of the gap between Hale and Bethan Lewis, with the intention of ejecting Hale from the maul.

Chancellor succeeds in removing Hale, leaving Lewis in control and Cara Hope (wearing 1) off-balance. She doesn’t change her bind, so isn’t a major concern for the referee.

After being thrown off, Wales accidentally collapse their own maul and fall over, merely because Chancellor created separation between the two driving forces of the maul. The referee calls “down by red” and Wales have to play the ball away.

Could Australia pull this off against England? Sure. Might they need to commit a few more numbers to stunt the initial drive? Yeah, probably. If you’re a defence coach, you might have to tell your pack to focus wholly on the drive, and trust the backs to defend anything wider. England are the best team in the world, so you might have to face the fact that if you’re going to let them score, let them score out wide rather than coming through the middle.

A sure fire method of stopping the Red Roses is yet to be invented, but if the Wallaroos can dampen their driving maul, that’s a mini-victory in itself.

Canada vs USA – Canada’s clinical halfbacks
I mean, much like England, the obvious answer is also the driving lineout, with hooker Emily Tuttossi the top *points* scorer in this tournament for her work at the back of the maul.

But that’s backed up by the women in the middle. As Canada approach their rematch with last week’s opponents, USA, their halfbacks will take on a lot of responsibility. Even with the experienced Brianna Miller ruled out, Justine Pelletier and Alex Tessier stepped up to manage last week’s game beautifully.

Tessier is arguably the best 12 in the world aside from Beatrice Rigoni. Few players in international rugby have the all-court game she possesses; a beautiful passer of the ball, a tremendous range of kicks, graceful running and never half-hearted in contact. Whether she plays 10 or 12, she’s the sort of player who can calmly guide her team into a World Cup semi-final without any real fuss being made over her.

Tessier’s try in Canada’s pool encounter with USA was a perfect example of how Canada rely on their halfbacks. As soon as it became clear the forwards weren’t going over, Pelletier called the ball out of the back and fed Tessier to execute an overlap. Sara Kaljuvee’s try against Italy was very similar, with Miller stood in the ten channel.

Canada are a team without a real weak point, and if they’re to breeze through their quarter final in the same way they did the group stage, expect their halfbacks to be the driving force once more.

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