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Five things: RWC quarters deliver rugby's greatest weekend, Cheika's timely Wallabies reminder, officiating wild west

16th October, 2023
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16th October, 2023
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PARIS — This was rugby’s greatest weekend. Four quarter-finals, four brilliant matches that came down to the final stages in every match. World Rugby had been slammed for 24 months for holding the draw three years ago.

As it turned out, the best four sides met not in the semi-finals but one week earlier.

It made for not just engrossing rugby in Paris but Marseille, too.

While the standard of rugby on show was different in both cities, all four matches were engrossing. It’s exactly what the opening weekend of knockout rugby needed.

In the previous two editions the All Blacks had made mince meat out of their quarter-final opponents, in Paris they were forced to defend for 37 phases to hold out Ireland.

Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Handre Pollard of South Africa celebrate after victory over France at Stade de France on October 15, 2023 in Paris. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Springboks had hammered Japan four years ago, but needed to defend for 10 phases to get past Les Bleus one night after the All Blacks’ great win.

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In France’s south, Argentina overturned a 10-0 deficit to finish over the top of Wales at the death.

England, meanwhile, snuck home against the Flying Fijians despite scoring one less try.

The second week of knockout rugby will struggle to meet the first. The exits of France and Ireland are hammer blows for the voice and momentum of the tournament.

But in a tournament of twists and turns, could another be around the corner?

One thing is for sure, Super Rugby might not be the tournament it once was but the southern hemisphere still knows how World Cups are won.

Is French maestro the greatest Nine ever?

Amid the chaos, there was a magician at work.

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After missing the past two weeks because of a fractured cheekbone, Antoine Dupont returned and delivered one of the best performances in a losing effort of all time.

Bullet passes, kicks off both feet, breakdown penalties, quick taps and try-assists; Dupont was magnificent.

His two kicks in the opening two minutes of the Test were extraordinary as his short box kick off his right foot for his halves teammate Matthieu Jalibert was inch perfect and then his cross-field effort off his left was as good as you’ll see.

Is Antoine Dupont the best halfback ever? (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Dupont will be without the World Cup he cherishes, but he is on the path to greatness.

Joost van der Westhuizen was the best running halfback of the modern era, George Gregan the most rounded, Fourie de Preez the best controller and Aaron Smith the best passer, but Dupont is the complete package.

It will be a long four-year wait, but with Dupont, France has the best halfback in the world.

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Officiating the wild, wild west

It might have been the most competitive quartet of quarter-finals, but the officiating has become the wild, wild west.

South Africa got away with murder at the breakdown against France, while Fiji got the rough end of the stick from Mathieu Raynal.

The officiating has become a lottery, but some nations have adapted quicker than others. That’s the key.

Ben O’Keefe did not want to blow a penalty at the breakdown and the Springboks adapted to it quickly.

In contrast, Raynal heeded Steve Borthwick’s warning and pinged Levani Botia for hands on the ruck.

Cheika’s Wallabies reminder

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The fiasco surrounding Eddie Jones’ future means Rugby Australia must be considering every option regarding who will coach the Wallabies in 2023.

Jones opted not to answer openly about questions throughout the tournament and was nothing but an added distraction. As much as the playing group said it wasn’t a distraction, the mood was tense and hooker Dave Porecki looked a shell of himself next to Jones as his coach defensively and sharply batted away questions.

Even if Jones doesn’t walk, his future will and should be open for debate.

There are few immediate standout options should RA turn away from Jones. That’s, in part, why RA shouldn’t turn away from the 63-year-old.

Dan McKellar is the obvious choice and the best coach in Australian rugby.

But would he benefit from a year away coaching overseas? RA think so.

Michael Cheika (C) has done his chances of a return to Australian rugby harm no harm after a quarter-final win over Wales. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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Stephen Larkham is another but it remains up for debate whether he is a head coach.

What is factual is unlike across the ditch, where Scott Robertson won everything under the sun before New Zealand Rugby appointed the former All Blacks back-rower as Ian Foster’s successor, Australian rugby has few coaches with silverware behind them. That’s a blight on the system – and a concern.

Michael Cheika, however, has.

As much as few could fathom him returning, the former Wallabies coach has only bolstered his CV with a victory over Wales to make the final four.

The circus surrounding his relationship with Raelene Castle, as well as the messy situation involving Israel Folau, certainly derailed his ability to keep the Wallabies rowing in the same direction.

Then, of course, there was the culling of the Western Force. Another messy situation diving Australian rugby.

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Unlike in 2016 when Bill Pulver gave Cheika carte blanche by rewarding him with a four-year deal, a two-year deal through to the Lions in 2025 has merit. But nothing more.

Time for SANZAAR to wake up and expand TRC

Fiji might be out of the World Cup, but they rocked the establishment over the past two months.

It started with a victory over England at Twickenham in August and ended with a defeat to the 2003 world champions in Marseille, but along the way, they also knocked over the Wallabies. This, the same Union, that has called on Fiji and Japan to ensure their high-performance programs can repeatedly play to a high standard from week-to-week.

Now the joke is on Rugby Australia, with the Wallabies failing to make it out of the pool stage as their Pacific neighbours pushed England all the way in another gripping quarter-final.

Fiji Rugby and the Japan Rugby Football Union once again showed they can perform on the international stage.

If it wasn’t already time, SANZAAR must wake up and inject both nations into The Rugby Championship to breathe some much-needed oxygen into a tournament dwindling in interest.

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