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Rugby World Cup quarter-finals: Major rivalry and surprise package

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Japan’s players pose for a group photo after winning the Rugby World Cup Pool A match against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday. Odd ANDERSEN/AFP

Rugby World Cup quarter-finals: Major rivalry and surprise package

Defending champions New Zealand play Ireland, England face old rivals Australia, France have Wales and surprise package Japan are up against South Africa in this weekend’s Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.

Here is a closer look at the match-ups, to be played on Saturday and Sunday in Tokyo and Oita:

Oct 19, Oita: England v Australia

There’s no shortage of sub-plots as one of rugby’s great rivalries heads into its latest installment in Oita on Saturday.

The two coaches have a long personal history – Australia’s Michael Cheika and Eddie Jones, in charge of England, were team-mates at Sydney’s Randwick club.

England also have a score to settle after their 33-13 defeat to the Wallabies embarrassingly sent them packing from the pool stages of the 2015 World Cup on home soil.

But England beat the Wallabies in last-eight clashes at the 1995 and 2007 World Cups – and in the 2003 final, when Jones was in charge of his native Australia. Recent history very much favours England, who have won six successive games against Australia since the 2015 World Cup.

England also look like one of the form teams at the World Cup, but past results and reputations will go out of the window when they face an Australian team packed with attacking threat.

Saturday, Tokyo: Ireland v NZ

New Zealand have already reclaimed the world number-one ranking from Ireland and they will have a point to prove after two defeats in recent years to the Six Nations side.

The Irish, stunned by Japan in Pool A, only spent two weeks on top of the rankings but they come into the match knowing they can beat the All Blacks, having won two of their last three.

Ireland won a 40-29 thriller in Chicago in 2016 and then beat the All Blacks in Dublin 16-9 during a New Zealand tour of Europe for their first-ever home win.

The match in Tokyo features some intriguing match-ups, not least World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton up against Richie Mo’unga, widely considered one of the most exciting talents in the global game.

After a convincing 27-3 win over Six Nations rivals Scotland, Ireland did not exactly shine during the pool phase and have been hit by injuries to a stellar back line.

But Ireland’s coach Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, should have close to a full squad to pick from for the first time in the competition.

One unknown is New Zealand’s lack of serious match practice after their pool game with Italy was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis.

It will be a full month since they were last properly tested – in their 23-13 opening pool win against Southern Hemisphere rivals South Africa – and there are fears in some quarters they could be “undercooked”.

Sunday, Oita: Wales v France

Warren Gatland’s Wales are deservedly favourites for this clash in Oita – but nobody is writing off the unpredictable French, who have a habit of springing surprises at the World Cup.

Four wins out of four meant Wales, the Six Nations champions, qualified top of a competitive Pool D also including Australia and Fiji.

France, meanwhile, scraped past Argentina, beat USA and were run close by Tonga before their final pool game against England was scrapped to avoid the typhoon.

However, it is unwise to read too much into France’s form, as they showed in 2011 when they lost to Tonga in pool play but ended up reaching the final, where they were shaded 8-7 by New Zealand.

Along the way was a tempestuous semi-final against Wales, which Les Bleus edged 9-8 after Welsh captain Sam Warburton was sent off early on for a tip tackle.

Gatland, meanwhile, who will step down after the World Cup, has built a formidable Welsh team known for its highly organised play and stifling defence.

But a number of injuries, including at fly-half where Dan Biggar is recovering from concussion, could dent the Welsh cause against the mercurial French, who have scored some of the most spectacular tries of the tournament.

Sunday, Tokyo: Japan v SA

Few would have predicted this as a quarter-final line-up but Japan have smashed all expectations – and 50-1 odds – to top their pool and set up a thrilling-looking encounter in Tokyo.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to the last time the two teams played in a World Cup – the 2015 “miracle of Brighton” when Japan pulled off a 34-32 upset widely considered the biggest shock in the sport’s history.

That achievement has even sparked a movie but the sequel was less pretty, the Springboks dismantling Japan 41-7 in a World Cup warm-up match in which the Brave Blossoms barely got into the game.

But roared on by a passionate home crowd, even the mighty Springboks will be wary of Japan’s giant-killing ability in Sunday’s match at Tokyo Stadium.

The game is likely to played at a breakneck speed and will feature three of the most electric wingers in rugby – Cheslin Kolbe for the Springboks and Japan’s Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima.

It would be a brave pundit to bet against the Springboks, who have looked in imposing form since an initial pool match loss to the All Blacks.

But Japan have already overturned the form book against two top sides in Ireland and Scotland and miracles have been known to happen twice.

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