New Zealand and Australia turned up the heat at the Rugby World Cup yesterday with impressive quarter-final victories over South Africa and Scotland. The Antipodean rivals, who meet each other in the first semi-final in Sydney next Saturday, appear to be running ominously into form as the tournament nears its climax.
The All Blacks produced an electrifying display to brush aside the Springboks 29-9 in the Telstra Dome, Melbourne, but Australia, the holders, looked decidedly shaky as the little-fancied Scots held them 9-9 in the first half at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. After the break, though, the Australians stepped up a gear, received a few moments of good fortune and eventually ran out comfortable 33-16 winners.
The fly-half Carlos Spencer was in irrepressible mood as the New Zealand forwards matched their much bigger South African opponents up front. Leon MacDonald, who also kicked a conversion and three penalties, Keven Mealamu and Joe Rokocoko went over for the All Blacks' tries. Aaron Mauger completed their scoring with a drop goal, while the rookie fly-half Derrick Hougaard replied with three penalties for South Africa. "It was certainly a step up from the pool games and we will gain a lot from the performance," said the New Zealand coach, John Mitchell.
Australia's three second-half tries were scored by Stirling Mortlock, George Gregan and David Lyons, Elton Flatley supplying three conversions and four penalties. Chris Paterson was on target for Scotland with two penalties, a 50-yard drop goal and a conversion to Rob Russell's late try.
Afterwards, the Australians learned that their young fly-half Matt Giteau, who came on as a second-half replacement for Stephen Larkham, may be forced out of the tournament because of an ankle injury. Giteau has had an X-ray and the Australian coach, Eddie Jones, said: "We'll know more in the morning but it certainly looks pretty serious."
Jones added: "We answered some questions tonight but we got some new ones as well. We are where we want to be, in the semi-finals, but we've got to keep on improving. Scotland were always going to come out hard but we just needed to absorb that pressure, and in the second half we knew that if we kept the pressure on, the errors from Scotland would come."
Yesterday's results marked an unhappy end to the careers of two of rugby union's greatest characters - the South African scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen and the Scotland coach, Ian McGeechan.
Today, the focus turns to the two remaining quarter-finals - both exclusively northern hemisphere affairs. The first pits France and Ireland together in Melbourne, with favourites England and Wales squaring up later in Brisbane.
During yesterday's build-up, England suffered a double setback when full-back Josh Lewsey and wing Iain Balshaw were ruled out with hamstring and knee injuries respectively. Lewsey, who ran in five tries last weekend against Uruguay, is replaced by Dan Luger, who will play on the wing with Jason Robinson switching to full-back. Balshaw's spot on the replacements' bench has gone to the Wasps centre Stuart Abbott.
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