The world's top two teams laid down serious statements on Saturday, as England and New Zealand each put in dominant displays against Australia and Ireland in the quarterfinals.
It sets up a battle in the semifinals that many think could decide the World Cup champion. Both teams were strong as a diamond in defense and sharp as a razor in attack over the weekend.
The last time the two sides met, the All Blacks squeaked out a 16-15 win at Twickenham one year ago. The stakes this time will be much higher, and the intensity will be palpable.
Here's how they got there:
- England 40-16 Australia -
I'll be the first to admit, I was fairly skeptical about Eddie Jones' decision to move flyhalf George Ford to the bench for this one. I thought, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Well, there's a reason Eddie is one of the great coaches in world rugby, and his ability to pull the unexpected is a big part of why. His choice to slot Henry Slade at center and move Owen Farrell to his customary role of flyhalf worked brilliantly.
Slade was immense in the #13 shirt, while Farrell ran the game as well as any #10 can, also consistently bringing the hammer on defense.
Simple and effective
England delivered a powerful, efficient, and accurate performance which indicates a team that's confident and on the same page. They didn't overcomplicate the attack, but instead just made sure they played in the right areas of the field.
Frankly, Australia weren't even that bad. They out-gained England in meters, 568 to 273, beat 21 defenders to England's 12, and offloaded eight times to England's three.
What kept the Aussies out of the endzone was England tackling at 90 percent, which is no easy task against the likes of Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibeti, Kurtley Beale and company.
The key difference was taking care of the ball. Australia coughed up the pill 18 times, 10 more than England. These turnovers directly led a chunk of England's scoring.
England didn't have much possession, but they were ruthlessly efficient with what they had. That, coupled with their ability to clamp down defensively in their own half, is a strong recipe for success in knockout rugby.
As England move forward into their meeting with New Zealand, their limiting of errors is going to be a key factor. They have made a very low number of mistakes this World Cup, and as we all know, there is no team that makes you pay for them like the All Blacks.
- New Zealand 46-14 Ireland -
It was a disappointing ending for Ireland captain Rory Best, who played his 124th and final game for Ireland on Saturday in the 46-14 loss to New Zealand.
The whole crowd and both teams gave the legend of the game a standing ovation, an emotional and genuine showing of respect to a man revered across the rugby landscape.
However, the day well and truly belonged to just one team. New Zealand were magnificent from start to finish, at times making Ireland look like a lower tier-2 team. When the All Blacks are clicking, they're simply unplayable.
Beauden Barrett, who was phenomenal, was awarded man of the match but in all fairness it was the strength of the team which saw them carve Ireland apart.
Kiwi Skill Levels
What impressed me the most about New Zealand's game on Saturday was the sheer skill level across the pitch, especially in the forward pack.
Marshaled around by the ultimate field general, Aaron Smith, the ABs play at such a high pace it's remarkable they are all so comfortable on the ball.
The abilities of the New Zealand forwards to provide perfectly timed tip passes to a teammate in support is uncanny compared to the rest of the world.
They put the defense on the back foot so frequently, and don't always just blast their way over to do so. They attack the line with pace, giving themselves the option to carry hard, but also to deliver a pop pass at the last second.
When the pass comes off, it commits the man who is defending the passer, plus another two at least to bring down the strike runner. In addition, the receiver gets well over the gainline and recycles quickly. This puts the defense on the back foot, AND it takes the three defenders who committed to tackling out of the play.
Against Ireland, this opened up so much time and space for the backline, and they took full advantage of that. Richie Mo'unga had his way from flyhalf, slicing up the D in a variety of ways.
Until the final quarter of the match, Ireland were utterly incompetent in attack. They finished the game with just two line breaks, both coming late in the game when the score was well out of reach.
The All Blacks tackled at an unbelievable 93-percent clip. That is unreal for a World Cup quarterfinal, especially against a team that's beaten you two out of three times.