Ireland’s defeat of France has raised the alluring prospect of an all-southern hemisphere semi-final line-up for the first time in Rugby World Cup history.
In an intriguing scenario, all four quarter-finals this weekend will be north versus south affairs, with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa – winners of six of the previous seven World Cups – all well fancied to advance to the last four.
The All Blacks tackle France in a sequel to their 2011 final in New Zealand, the Wallabies take on Scotland and the Springboks face Wales.
Argentina, surprise semi-finalists in France in 2007, have the chance to reach the penultimate stage again when they square off with Ireland.
Only this time it would be no shock to see the Pumas, a vastly improved outfit since gaining Rugby Championship exposure in 2012, in the semi-finals of the global showpiece.
Despite the long-time dominance of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, 1999 is the only time three southern hemisphere sides have featured in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals.
All four making it in this edition will be another hammer blow to the home nations following hosts England’s humiliating pool-stage exit from the tournament.
But it is certainly on the cards.
Three-time runners-up France have a history of producing World Cup boilovers, particularly against New Zealand, but it is hard to see Les Bleus pulling off any such upset this time around.
After an unconvincing opening to their title defence, the All Blacks are starting to warm to the occasion, a 47-9 destruction of Tonga in their final pool match reaffirming their World Cup favouritism.
France couldn’t manage a try in a Pool D-deciding 24-9 loss to Ireland on Sunday and their insipid attack is a huge concern heading into their quarter-final showdown with the top-ranked All Blacks in Cardiff on Saturday.
Australia have lost two of their past three clashes with Scotland but coach Michael Cheika has moved quickly to nip any complacency in the bud, saying it would be foolish to look beyond Sunday’s clash at Twickenham.
“They’re all tough games now. They’re all knock out,” Cheika said after the Wallabies secured top spot in Pool D with a courageous 15-6 denial of Wales on Saturday.
With their strongest side available, third-ranked Wales would ordinarily fancy their chances of toppling the fourth-ranked Springboks.
But Warren Gatland’s injury-ravaged Red Dragons will need to conjure something special to keep their World Cup hopes alive at Twickenham in Saturday’s first quarter-final.
Ireland against Argentina looks the tightest of the four quarter-finals and the tantalising prospect of the Wallabies needing to complete a grand slam sweep of the four home nations to make a fourth World Cup final remains a distinct possibility.
Ireland, though, also are a battered outfit and will likely need to conquer the inspired Pumas without inspirational lock and captain Paul O’Connell (leg), flanker Peter O’Mahony (knee) and goalkicking playmaker Jonny Sexton (ribs and groin).
Star No.7 Sean O’Brien could also be in strife after replays showed the openside flanker striking French second-rower Pascal Pape in the stomach in the opening minute of the match.
WORLD CUP QUARTER-FINALS (prefix denotes world ranking):
4-South Africa v 3-Wales at Twickenham, London (4pm local, 0200 Sunday AEDT)
1-New Zealand v 6-France at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff (8pm, 0600 Sunday AEDT)
5-Ireland v 7-Argentina at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff (1pm, 2300 AEDT)
2-Australia v 9-Scotland at Twickenham, London (4pm, 0200 Monday AEDT)