Four absolutely belting quarter-finals. We dig into the key stats, talking points, data visualisations and predictions from a brilliant weekend of Rugby World Cup action. That’s what you can expect from our weekly Rugby World Cup data recap.
After six rounds of action, we have our final four. Argentina, England, New Zealand and South Africa are all vying to have their name inscribed on the Webb Ellis Cup.
The four quarter-finals that took place over the weekend were matches worthy of finals, with each game packed full of drama and firmly in the balance until the final moments. The average winning margin across the weekend was just 5.8 points, the narrowest margin ever across the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup, with all four teams crossing the try line at least twice – that’s the first time that’s happened in the last eight of the tournament.
We analyse the numbers that lie behind the agony and ecstasy of each match, as well as giving an update on our tournament predictions.
Wales 17-29 Argentina
Wales started brightly against Argentina, moving into a 10-0 lead with just over a quarter of the match played.
However, a couple of Argentina penalty goals just before half-time changed the complexion of the game going into the break, with the Pumas carrying some momentum into the final 40 minutes. Wales’ live win probability had peaked at 91% just before the Pumas opened their account but after two quickfire penalties either side of half-time, Argentina managed to get their noses in front. Wales would edge back ahead but two tries in the final 15 minutes helped Argentina to a third Rugby World Cup semi-final, after also reaching the last four in 2007 and 2015.
Argentina’s work at the breakdown was impressive and their ruck speed made it difficult for Wales to defend each wave of attack. Argentina completed 64% of their rucks in 0-3 seconds, 10 percentage points higher than Wales. They were led by the tireless Marcos Kremer who hit 35 attacking rucks during the game – a tally only two other players have reached in a match at this World Cup (Isoa Nasilasila vs Wales and Maro Itoje vs Japan). However, what was more impressive was that he cleaned out (11 times, a tournament-high) or secured the ruck (24 times) with each of those attacking ruck arrivals. No other player has hit more than 27 attacking rucks in an international match this year while maintaining a 100% effectiveness rate.
Argentina’s set-piece provided a strong platform, too, with the Pumas winning all of their scrums and lineouts, the second time they’ve recorded a 100% success rate at the set-piece at this World Cup (also vs Samoa).
Crucially, they were more efficient when getting into the red zone; they made the same number of 22 entries as Wales but averaged 3.8 points per entry, conceding just 2.3 points per entry in reply.
Ireland 24-28 New Zealand
The Stade de France was treated to two of the great Rugby World Cup matches at the weekend, with Ireland and New Zealand taking centre stage on Saturday night. It is perhaps unsurprising that the All Blacks got out of the blocks quickest – taking a commanding 13-0 lead with just over a quarter of the game played – given that Ireland haven’t led in a quarter-final fixture since 1995 against France. However, while in other years Ireland might have fallen away – as they did when these two sides met in the last eight four years ago – this time the Irish showed their mettle, clawing their way back into the game to go into the half-time break just one point behind.
The second half would continue in the same vein, with New Zealand threatening to pull away and Ireland fighting their way back within touching distance. For a match that New Zealand led from the eighth minute to the 80th, it was anything but comfortable, and it took some stoic defence from the All Blacks to end Ireland’s 17-game winning run.
New Zealand have now progressed to the semi-finals for the ninth time in 10 attempts. Ireland meanwhile, have now fallen at the quarter-final stage eight times, more than any other nation.
New Zealand were forced to make 226 tackles, their most ever in a Rugby World Cup match, while the last time they made 200+ in any Test was against Ireland in November 2021 (235). They were led by captain Sam Cane who throughout his Test career has had to endure comparisons to Richie McCaw, one of the game’s all-time greats. This match was perhaps Cane’s finest in a New Zealand jersey, making 22 tackles, more than any other player on the pitch. In fact, that figure was the second-most by an All Black in a Rugby World Cup match, after a tally of 26 against Australia in 2003 by… Richie McCaw. Sorry, Sam.
Those record tackle numbers are probably unsurprising, given the ball was in play for 41 minutes and 54 seconds, over two minutes more than any other match at this year’s tournament.
That tally was surely helped by Ireland’s final phase of possession as they went in search of a winning try. New Zealand endured wave after wave of an Irish attack that lasted 37 phases in total, the most ever in a single possession in a Rugby World Cup match.
In fact, the only international fixture in Opta’s entire database that had a longer spell of phases was the 2018 Six Nations clash between France and Ireland (40). On that night Johnny Sexton drop-kicked Ireland on their way to an eventual Grand Slam, but on Saturday there wasn’t quite the fairytale ending.
At the other end of the pitch, New Zealand were clinical. They had just over a third of the number of 22 entries that Ireland recorded in the game, but they made them count, averaging 3.7 points per 22 entry compared to Ireland’s average of 1.4.
Sturdy defence and an efficient attack are two key ingredients for winning knockout matches and it’s hard not to see New Zealand going all the way to the final in two weeks.
England 30-24 Fiji
England overcame Fiji in the third quarter-final of the weekend, but were made to sweat as a flurry of Fiji tries in the final quarter saw them come from 14 points down to go into the final 10 minutes level. Opta’s live win probability model was almost evenly split in terms of the final outcome at that point, giving England and Fiji a 37% and 33% chance of winning respectively with a 30% chance of normal time ending in a draw.
However, Owen Farrell knocked over a drop goal a few minutes later – England’s fourth of the tournament, more than the other 19 teams at this World Cup combined (Wales, Uruguay and Japan one each) – before a penalty extended the lead to six points, meaning Fiji needed to chase a converted try to keep their tournament hopes alive. Steve Borthwick’s side held out to book a spot in the semis for the sixth time in their history and they’ve now won four of their last five quarter-finals.
Against a physical Fiji side, England won the gainline battle, getting across the advantage line from 60% of their carries, the best rate of any quarter-finalist, while Fiji had the lowest rate of any side in the last eight (42%).
England knew they couldn’t meet Fiji head-on in the collisions, as displayed by the fact that Fiji recorded a dominant tackle rate of 15%, comfortably the best rate of any nation at the weekend. Instead, England tried to work their way around the Fijian defence, recording a tackle evasion rate of 29% – only France bettered (30%) that over the weekend.
Winning is a habit and England have certainly worked out how to get over the line at this year’s Rugby World Cup. They will definitely need to find another couple of gears if they are to keep their run going against the Springboks in the semi-finals.
France 28-29 South Africa
After the events in Saint-Denis the night before, few might have believed that France vs South Africa could eclipse the drama of New Zealand’s hard-fought victory against Ireland. But it did just that, with the ‘Boks breaking French hearts and marching on to the semi-finals.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given that South Africa have the best win rate of any nation in Rugby World Cup knockout matches (78% – 14/18).
But given how fast France came out of the blocks, it felt like they might take the game out of reach early on. Les Bleus registered their second-quickest try in a knockout fixture after just three minutes.
The first half was an epic, with both sides scoring three tries apiece. That tally of six tries is the most ever in the first half of a knockout match at the Rugby World Cup.
The Springboks’ three scores came despite having just 99 seconds of possession in the France half during the opening 40 minutes. They made three 22 entries and scored from all three, averaging 6.3 points per entry. Clincal.
The Springboks’ efficiency and France’s inability to make their chances count, particularly in the second half, were key. Although South Africa didn’t beat as many defenders as their opponents, 66% of their tackle breaks saw them make a line break or go on to score a try, the best rate of any team in the quarter-finals, while they scored from 50% of their line breaks overall, the joint-best rate at the weekend alongside New Zealand.
Arguably any other team in the world would have struggled to keep France’s attack at bay, as they baat 43 defenders, their third most ever in a Rugby World Cup fixture (56 vs Zimbabwe 1987, 48 vs Namibia 2007), while only one team has managed to beat more in a knockout match – New Zealand, against South Africa in 2003 (45).
The Springboks are the only nation to lose a pool stage match and go on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, doing so in 2019. They might just repeat that feat in 2023.
Unsurprisingly, South Africa and New Zealand – who have won six of the nine previous World Cups between them – are heavy favourites to contest the final, with the Springboks our marginal favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup after beating the hosts on Sunday evening.
Pool D has never boasted an eventual winner in the history of the men’s Rugby World Cup, but it does have the highest representation in this year’s semi-final with England and Argentina both overcoming Pool C opposition to reach the final four.
The Pool D curse could end in 2023, but England and Argentina are certainly outside bets for the tournament according to our rugby supercomputer.