In an interview with Omnisport last April, the great Brian O'Driscoll acknowledged Ireland would prefer the 2019 Rugby World Cup to be held 12 months earlier than scheduled.

How Joe Schmidt's men must have wished that had been the case on Saturday, as they suffered a humbling 46-14 defeat to a rampant New Zealand and exited the tournament at the quarter-final stage yet again.

In 2018, Ireland were almost unstoppable, racking up 11 wins from 12 Tests - including a Six Nations Grand Slam and an historic maiden home win over the All Blacks in November.

Their only defeat, at the hands of Australia in June, was swiftly avenged, as they followed up that loss in Brisbane with victories in Melbourne and Sydney to earn a first series victory in Australia since 1979.

Before that tour and the triumph over the All Blacks, though, O'Driscoll delivered an assessment that can now be viewed as startlingly prophetic. 

In the wake of Ireland's Grand Slam success, the former British and Irish Lions centre said: "Would we prefer to have the World Cup this September? Yes, we would, because of where we feel we're at versus the rest of the world.

"But 18 months is a long time in international rugby. It will give other teams an opportunity to build on the work they've done.

"South Africa won't be the side that they currently are in 18 months' time; they always get it together for a World Cup. France seem to be a side that will definitely improve. Wales have a lot of injuries [and will be stronger in future]. England are not going to be as disappointing as they were in this year's Six Nations.

"So there's lots of teams that have time to be able to right their wrongs in terms of recent form and make sure that they peak come Japan 2019."

Unfortunately for O'Driscoll and his countrymen, while several nations have improved significantly, Ireland's recent peak has undeniably passed.

A week on from last November's triumph over New Zealand, Ireland swept the major honours at the 2018 World Rugby awards, scooping the team of the year prize as Schmidt and Johnny Sexton were named coach of the year and player of the year respectively.

The following day, Schmidt announced his intention to stand down and end his coaching career after the World Cup. Ireland's fortunes have declined sharply ever since.

Defeats to England and Wales in this year's Six Nations saw the team finish third 12 months on from their Grand Slam glory.

If that represented a concerning dip, the alarm bells were certainly ringing by the time Schmidt's side were trounced 57-15 by England at Twickenham in August.

Skipper Rory Best said he and his team-mates were "nowhere near where we need to be", adding: "The only upside is that it is the middle of August not the middle of September."

Ireland won their remaining warm-up games against Wales and further much-needed optimism was provided when they recorded a comprehensive 27-3 win over Scotland in their opening Pool A fixture.

Yet it proved a false dawn.

A shock loss to hosts Japan six days on laid bare Ireland's issues once more and ultimately pressed Best and Co into the least enviable quarter-final slot, as opponents of the All Blacks.

Had the game taken place in 2018, Ireland would surely have fancied their chances.

Instead, this contest felt like a foregone conclusion from the outset and so it proved as a glittering era under Schmidt came to a painful end.

New Zealand remain right on course to retain the Rugby World Cup after they eased through to the semi-finals with a 46-14 thrashing of Ireland at Tokyo Stadium on Saturday.

The All Blacks ran in seven tries as they emphatically crushed their opponents, setting up a showdown with England - 40-16 winners over Australia in the first knockout tie of the 2019 tournament - in Yokohama next weekend.

As for Ireland, the heavy defeat means they are still yet to get beyond the last eight at a World Cup, a record seventh quarter-final exit bringing a disappointing end to Joe Schmidt's otherwise successful reign.

They had won two of the past three meetings between the teams but hopes of further success disappeared during an error-strewn opening half, New Zealand scoring 22 points without reply to make the result a formality with 40 minutes still left to play.

The All Blacks had opened their campaign in Japan with a hard-fought win over South Africa, but that heavyweight clash was a month ago, leading to suggestions rustiness could be an issue after cruising through the rest of their Pool B fixtures.

However, it soon became clear there was no need for head coach Steve Hansen to be concerned about his team being undercooked.

Aaron Smith darted over twice from close range in the first quarter, and even when Ireland did eventually threaten with ball in hand on the half-hour, miscommunication between Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls coughed up possession and New Zealand ruthlessly made them pay, Richie Mo'unga initially hacking the loose ball on before leaving it for Beauden Barrett to finish.

A sorry first half for Schmidt's team was summed up by a penalty decision being reversed, denying them a chance to get on the scoreboard before the break, while any remote idea of a comeback disappeared when Kieran Read's pass off the floor set up hooker Codie Taylor eight minutes into the second period.

Matt Todd and the excellent Bridge also crossed as New Zealand refused to show any mercy, though the former finished the game in the sin bin after Ireland were awarded a penalty try.

Robbie Henshaw had already crossed by then to make sure the Irish avoided the indignity of being shut out, yet the All Blacks deservedly had the last word when Beauden Barrett's pass put brother Jordie in at the right corner.

Vulnerable All Blacks? Forget about it!

Typhoon Hagibis forced the postponement of New Zealand's final group game against Italy, yet they did not take long to get back into the swing of things. An early show of physicality set the tone for a dominant display as they made a statement to those who have designs on ending their long reign as world champions.

Say it ain’t so, Joe…

This was not how Schmidt hoped his tenure would end. He had twice plotted defeats of his homeland previously, but there was to be no hat-trick. Still, he departs after over six years in charge having won three Six Nations titles, including completing the Grand Slam in 2018. Sadly for Ireland, they appear to have peaked a year too early in terms of the World Cup.

England boss Eddie Jones offered no sympathy to Australia after his team swamped the Wallabies at the Rugby World Cup.

A thumping 40-16 victory in Oita carried England through to the semi-finals, with Australian Jones the unabashed architect.

As his counterpart Michael Cheika just about held back tears, telling one journalist to show some "compassion" when raising the question of his future, Jones was jubilant after his own team's performance.

But when it came to sympathising with his former Randwick team-mate, there was nothing going.

"Look, it's tough when you lose a game, particularly at this level of a World Cup," Jones said in a post-match news conference.

"At this moment, not a lot of sympathy, no, because I'm enjoying the win and I think I'm allowed to enjoy the win.

"Maybe later in the week I might, so ask me that later in the week."

England will be deep in preparation for their semi-final task by then, and the impressive performance in their first match of the knock-out stage will count for very little.

They must not merely reprise the display that ripped Cheika's side apart but take it to the next level, Jones said.

"We just want to keep challenging ourselves. We haven't played at our best yet," Jones said.

"The challenge is: how do we get better next week?"

He said England would expect "probably the toughest game of the tournament" next and predicted a "twinge" that led two-try Jonny May to come off late in the Australia game will not keep him sidelined.

Jones described Kyle Sinckler as "like a runaway rhino" after his charge to the line for England's third try, and said George Ford was "absolutely spectacular" after coming off the bench in the second half, having been surprisingly left out of the starting line-up.

England's coach was wary, though, of placing the team on too high a pedestal, even when touching on a favourite pet topic of samurai warriors.

"It's a do-or-die game today. Everyone understands that, and the best samurais were always guys who had a plan but could adapt, who had a calm head, but they were full of aggression," Jones said.

"I thought we were pretty much like that today.

"The challenge is always how we get better, because there's always a better samurai around the corner, so we have to get better."

Michael Cheika urged a reporter to show "compassion" as he objected to being asked whether he intends to step down as Australia's head coach following their Rugby World Cup exit.

Cheika's contract is set to expire and he is widely expected to leave his position, having previously said he would not seek reappointment if the Wallabies did not win the tournament.

However, in a tense news conference after a 40-16 quarter-final loss to England in Oita, the 52-year-old took exception to being asked if he was considering his role.

"It's a cruel, cruel world nowadays when you're asking those questions two minutes after we've been knocked out of the World Cup," said a dejected Cheika.

"If you'd find it inside you to find a little bit of compassion for people who are hurting and just ask a more relevant question [that would be appreciated], because I came here with only one thought in my mind, about winning here. That thought has just disappeared now, not 15-20 minutes ago.

"I know that's what the papers demand, but perhaps, whatever your news outlet is, you should think about people's feelings."

Cheika's future was not raised again until the final question of the news conference. A journalist, who began his enquiry by saying he "appreciated the timeframe", reminded Cheika of his pre-tournament comments about standing aside if Australia did not triumph, asking if that was still his intention.

That query was also rebuffed by Cheika, who swiftly responded: "If you appreciate the timeframe, why ask the question?

He added: "When the time comes, I'll tell 'em [Rugby Australia].

"They don't need to know today - it's not going to kill 'em."

Eddie Jones insists England are still capable of improvement despite earning an impressive 40-16 win over Australia in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.

England will face New Zealand or Ireland in the last four next weekend after they scored four tries to the Wallabies' one in Oita on Saturday.

Head coach Jones recognised Australia had made the stronger start to the encounter but was impressed with how his players came through.

"The good news for us is we can still improve," he said after the match. "We weren't absolutely at our best. Australia started the game fast, played superbly for the first 20 and we had to hang in there.

"We hung in there, got a bit of momentum back and got the points when we needed. I'm so pleased for the players, they have worked hard to get this result. What a great crowd, fantastic.

"We are happy to play anyone now but obviously I've got a soft spot for New Zealand. I'd love to play New Zealand in the semi-final, it would be a great challenge for us, we'd be looking forward to it."

Jonny May scored two tries in the space of four first-half minutes, while Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson dotted down after England went into the interval with a 17-9 lead.

"Scott Wisemantel has done a great job with getting more options in our attack," added Jones.

"Maybe at the start of the four years here we were a little bit too one dimensional but now we have more options, he's done a great job in that area."

Captain Owen Farrell, who contributed 20 points off the tee, also praised Australia for the way they approached the game.

He said: "I thought Australia made that a brilliant game. They attacked throughout, from minute one to 80.

"Our boys did well in defence and then managed to get some field position off the back of it. We know that when we get some field position we can be pretty dangerous.

"My kicking was a lot better than last time!"

On England's second-half approach, as the forwards and kicking game played more of a role to tighten the match up, Farrell added: "We did what was needed.

"We had the lead and obviously Australia were throwing everything at us again. We wanted to play the game at our pace, not theirs, and thankfully we did that in the second half.

"The support has been brilliant. It's a massive privilege to play for England and hopefully you see that when we play. It's brilliant to have them behind us."

Thank goodness that's over, and Michael Cheika can get back to just being a "good old mate" of Eddie Jones again.

How it must have pained the old scrum colleagues from their Randwick days to be jostling against each other at a Rugby World Cup.

From being on the same side, dressing-room besties in the 1980s, to being sworn enemies at least for a week. It can't be good for anybody's health.

It sure as hell looked like being a grim state of affairs for Cheika, who whenever the television cameras honed in on him in the stands at Oita Stadium, looked to be living out a personal nightmare.

A thump of the desk here, a look of desperation there. Surely he'll be on his way to pastures new once the dust settles on this thumping 40-16 England victory over Australia.

He dramatically called for "compassion" from a journalist after the match, when asked if he would be moving on.

But the Wallabies are going home. They have lost seven straight games to England. Cheika's contract is up. You do the maths.

"I was supposed to get this done for the people here and for Australians. I'm so disappointed," Cheika said, seemingly close to tears.

Cheika clobbered the table in front of him early in the game after Australia gave away a scrum inside their own 22, and five minutes later his team were two tries behind, the estimable Jonny May marking his 50th cap with a double.

As Brexit debating went into overdrive in the UK Parliament, England certainly needed no left-wing amendment. They were happy, too, for this particular May to crack on with getting a deal done.

The Leicester flyer dashed in by the corner flag both times, firstly from close range after a patient build-up and on the second occasion when David Pocock handed over possession and Henry Slade charged from midfield before kicking through for England's bolting number 11 to gather.

Australia had an 11 who could dash for the line too, and when Marika Koroibete took advantage of tremendous work from Reece Hodge and Jordan Petaia to bound down the left for a try that Christian Lealiifano converted, it was a one-point game early in the second half. Hope for Cheika and his men, but not for long.

Prop Kyle Sinckler exploited a gap in Australia's defence to trundle through for a swift riposte, and Australia were then booted out of the game by the outstanding kicking game of England captain Owen Farrell. Anthony Watson piled on the agony with another try. Mercifully the TV cameras allowed Cheika to wallow in private grief this time.

With Jones and Cheika, there was a sense of soap-opera histrionics about their pre-match sparring, the possibility that this apparent long-standing great friendship - Jones described Cheika as "my good old mate" ahead of this game - may not be quite all it was cracked up to be.

Australians have made a roaring trade from exporting soap operas for global consumption, of course, and it was no great stretch to imagine Jones and Cheika squabbling over day-to-day mundanities in, say, the long-running Neighbours saga.

Mulish to a fault, you could equate them to that garrulous hepcat Lou Carpenter and Salvation Army field marshal Harold Bishop, long-time "good old mates" whose own friendship was put under intense pressure by another rivalry for the ages.

Just as Carpenter and Bishop fought tooth, nail and tuba solo for the affections of Madge Ramsey, so there was one thing standing between Jones and Cheika’s old pals' act on Saturday: it was a day to go hard or go home.

Erstwhile team-mates, Cheika had a beef this week about Jones bringing Aussie Ricky Stuart into the England camp over the past week. Why, Cheika seemed to question, are so many leading Australian coaches working with England teams, whether in rugby, cricket, indeed anywhere across the sporting spectrum?

The swaggering, wily Jones had struck another blow at the heart of Australia. Cheika was rattled by the master wind-up merchant, ensnared by another supremely executed trap.

The irony amid Australian post-match hand-wringing is that Jones is fancied in some quarters to take over from Cheika for what would be a second stint with the Wallabies. He was described as "the obvious solution" - as well as an "arch little pinprick" - in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial on Saturday morning.

Jones has often said he fancies retiring to Barbados once his time with England is up, yet he said the same during his Japan tenure.

The reality is that he lives for days such as this.

Australia need the sort of rebuilding job England faced after the last World Cup. They have lost to England and Wales, where four years ago hosts England were beaten by Australia and Wales.

Whether Australia could tempt 59-year-old Jones again is a different question. They need him surely more than he needs them.

With a Cheshire cat grin for the cameras and a brief pat on the back for Cheika, Jones is all about England for now as he turns his focus to Yokohama and a semi-final next Saturday, another coach and another team in his sights.

A disconsolate Michael Cheika hailed his Australia players as "a credit to their country" after the Wallabies were dumped out of the Rugby World Cup at the quarter-final stage by England.

Despite starting superbly in Oita, the 1991 and 1999 world champions were ultimately thumped 40-16 as England defended superbly before pulling clear in the second half.

Australia head coach Cheika is widely expected to leave his role, having failed to oversee a repeat of the team's run to the final in 2015.

The 52-year-old cut a distraught figure in his immediate post-match interview, but he made a point of highlighting his team's commitment to the cause.

"I think the lads put everything they had into it today," said Cheika. "I want all the Aussies at home and over here to know that. They gave it everything; they put their bodies on the line.

"We made a few mistakes at different times, but they've given everything, these lads ... and they're a credit to their country."

Australia had more possession throughout Saturday's contest but could only manage one try, through Marika Koroibete, while England crossed four times courtesy of Jonny May (2), Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson.

"I thought we actually played quite well, especially the first 50-60 [minutes]," Cheika reasoned.

"We gave away two intercepts and they [England] defended well like you've got to, so the better team won.

"That's the way it is, you've got to suck that up sometimes. I was supposed to get this done for the people here and for Australians. I'm so disappointed."

Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper added: "We're really upset. We emptied everything into this and we didn't get it done, which is pretty gutting for a lot of reasons.

"Firstly, there's a lot of our guys who are leaving. Secondly, we had a great supporter base over here to push us along and we really felt it along the way. To not be able to do it for them and ourselves is pretty gutting."

Jonny May marked his 50th Test appearance with two tries as England gained Rugby World Cup revenge over Australia, reaching the semi-finals with an emphatic 40-16 win in Oita.

May crossed twice in the space of four first-half minutes to give England, who were humiliatingly eliminated on home soil four years ago courtesy of a pool-stage defeat to the Wallabies, a lead they never relinquished.

Australia were ultimately well beaten in what appears likely to be Michael Cheika's final game in charge, Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson also crossing in the second half as England, for whom Tom Curry was outstanding, thundered clear.

Eddie Jones' men have now won seven successive Tests against Australia since that painful 2015 defeat and will face defending champions New Zealand or Ireland in the last four.

The Wallabies had more of the ball throughout the contest, yet England were much more clinical as they showed no signs of rust in their first game for a fortnight, the 2003 champions' final pool game against France having been cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis.

Teenage back Jordan Petaia - a bold selection from Cheika at outside centre - was prominent in a superb start for the underdogs, but the Wallabies' early dominance only yielded three points from Christian Lealiifano.

Having been initially pegged back by Australia's direct running and impressive ruck speed, England dramatically seized the initiative through May.

The Leicester wing's first score was a straightforward one as he accepted Curry's delayed pass to go over in the left corner, after Manu Tuilagi had played a key role in marching England forward.

A more eye-catching try quickly followed when Henry Slade intercepted a loose pass from David Pocock. Slade did not have the legs to reach the line, but he kicked ahead for May, who gathered calmly and outpaced Samu Kerevi to dot down again.

Owen Farrell, playing at fly-half for the first time in the tournament, twice converted from the left touchline and added a simple penalty in between two three-pointers from Lealiifano, ensuring England led 17-9 at the interval.

Australia briefly reduced their deficit to a solitary point as Marika Koroibete streaked over from Petaia's inside pass, only for England to respond immediately, Farrell's flat cut-out pass laying on a try for Sinckler.

England never looked back thereafter and skipper Farrell kicked three further penalties before Watson's 76th-minute interception try rubbed salt in Australia's wounds.

Luke Morahan grabbed a double and new signing Nathan Hughes also crossed as Bristol Bears started the Premiership season with a 43-16 derby drubbing of Bath.

Ambitious Bristol marked their return to the top flight with a win over Bath last season and Pat Lam's side turned it on for a sell-out crowd at Ashton Gate on Friday.

Utility-back Morahan set the ball rolling with an early try following a powerful run from Hughes, who marked his league debut following his move from Wasps by going under the posts 11 minutes in.

Mat Protheroe touched down on the stroke of half-time to put Bristol 17-13 up after a Zach Mercer try and eight points from the boot of Rhys Priestland gave Bath a slender lead.

Bristol dominated the second half to run away with it, Piers O'Conor, John Afoa and teenage debutant Ioan Lloyd going over before Morahan claimed his second of the match.

Hughes was also involved in that final score as he set about trying to prove a point to Eddie Jones after being left out of England's Rugby World Cup squad.

A third penalty of the match for Priestland was Bath's only score of the second half of their first Premiership match under new director of rugby Stuart Hooper.

Michael Leitch declared "the end is not here" as Japan plot another sensational defeat of South Africa in their first Rugby World Cup quarter-final on Sunday.

The hosts reached the last eight for the first time with a 28-21 victory over Scotland in a decisive match in Yokohama last weekend.

Japan avoided New Zealand by topping Pool A but face a huge test against the Springboks at Tokyo Stadium.

The Brave Blossoms pulled off one of the great sporting upsets by beating the two-time champions in Brighton at the last World Cup four years ago and captain Leitch says history can repeat itself.

"We're not satisfied; the end is not here," the number eight said.

"We'll play in the last eight and have another chance to show our game to our people. Each of us are playing to have more of that opportunity.

"South Africa looked really scary at the start of the week, but we begin to feel really excited as we understand the game and think about how to break them down. That fear gradually fades and confidence rises."

Japan were thrashed 41-7 by the Rugby Championship holders in a pre-tournament Test last month and Springboks captain Siya Kolisi says that served as a small measure of revenge. 

"That was very tough to lose that match in England. That stuck with us until that game when we got here [before this World Cup]," the flanker said. "It's something that we never want to go through again."

He added: "They are a much better team now, and it was good to play that game before the World Cup, just to get that monkey off our back.

"Now it's a different game again. We are going to have to be at our best again, because they have really improved as a team - they are much better now than four years ago. So we are looking forward to the challenge."

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Japan – Michael Leitch

The inspirational Leitch and his opposite number Kolisi are set for another monumental battle, while also keeping calm heads and ensuring their sides stay disciplined with so much at stake. 

Leitch will need to lead by example again after an inspired display against Scotland.

South Africa - Cheslin Kolbe

Kolbe missed the Springboks' final pool match against Canada as a precautionary measure after taking a blow to his ankle in the victory over Italy.

The livewire wing claimed a clinical double in the 49-3 drubbing of the Azzurri and also touched down twice in the warm-up rout of Japan, so the hosts must be wary of the threat he poses.

 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Japan's victory over South Africa in England was their first against a tier one nation in the tournament at their 16th attempt.
- South Africa scored more tries (27) and points (185) than any other side in the pool stage. Japan scored have scored only 13 tries en route to the last eight. 
- Japan made 559 metres against Scotland, the third time in the tournament they had made 500 plus metres in a match.
- Springboks wing Kolbe averaged 12.8 metres per carry in the pool stage, the best rate of any player to make at least 10 carries.
- South Africa won all of their 47 line-outs on their own throw in the pool stage, the only side in the tournament to have a 100 per cent success rate.

Such was the scale of Japan's Rugby World Cup victory over South Africa four years ago, they made a movie - 'The Brighton Miracle' - to commemorate one of the great sporting upsets.

There will surely be a sequel on the way after this year's Brave Blossoms reached the quarter-finals for the first time by beating Scotland, and box-office sales could soar through the roof if history repeats itself on Sunday when they face the Springboks again.

South Africa will start the last-eight contest as overwhelming favourites to gain revenge, with their star-studded cast including Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Japan also have no shortage of talent to play leading roles and will be backed by a raucous crowd when they attempt to break new ground once again on home soil.

As the Boks plot to spoil the party for their hosts, we reflect on how Japan pulled off a monumental shock at the last World Cup in England, as well as looking at the prospects of lightning striking twice.

 

Hesketh and Goromaru rock Boks

Japan were not given a prayer in the opening Pool B match given Zimbabwe were the only team they had previously beaten in a World Cup match – and that win was way back in 1991.

Yet Eddie Jones' side humiliated a vastly experienced Springboks team with their exciting brand of rugby, coming from behind to secure the most dramatic and unlikely of victories.

Karne Hesketh crossed right at the death and Ayumu Goromaru claimed a 24-point haul to leave the two-time champions not knowing what had hit them following a 34-32 loss.

 

Meyer fronts up to 'Boklash'

Heyneke Meyer came under fire after his side lost the plot and rampant Japan made them pay.

The then-head South Africa coach said: "I have to apologise to the nation. It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility.

"Every game is going to be tough but there are no excuses."

 

Jones: I had to look at the scoreboard

Jones, who landed the England job after his success with Japan in 2015, was pinching himself after the underdogs snatched victory with their last throw of the dice. 

The Australian said: "Japan beating South Africa? I had to look at the scoreboard at the end just to see if it was true or not. We kept hanging in there. It looked at one stage when they got seven points ahead that they would run away with it.

"That would have been the normal scenario, like the horror story where the woman goes for a shower after midnight and you know what's going to happen. Normally they would score three or four, it ends up 50-20 and everyone says, 'Well done Japan, you tried hard, you were brave'. But we were more than brave."

 

What happened next?

Jones said the objective for Japan was to go on and reach the quarter-finals after downing the two-time champions, but they fell agonisingly short.

A heavy defeat to Scotland turned out to be crucial as Japan finished third in Pool B after failing to pick up any bonus points.

South Africa, Scotland and the Brave Blossoms all won three and lost one of their four games, but it was Japan who missed out.

 

Hope springs eternal for revenge-seeking Boks

Although Japan are riding on the crest of a wave as they prepare for their first World Cup knockout match, South Africa have looked formidable despite making a losing start against New Zealand.

Potent in attack and solid in defence, the Springboks have turned their fortunes around under Rassie Erasmus and dethroned the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship.

They also hammered Japan 41-7 in a pre-tournament warm-up match and is it hard to envisage them suffering another upset at the hands of their next opponents.

Dan Biggar is confident he is 100 per cent ready to return to action in Wales' Rugby World Cup quarter-final clash with France, according to Warren Gatland.

Biggar missed Wales' final Pool D match against Uruguay with concussion after suffering head knocks in consecutive matches against Australia and Fiji.

However, the Northampton Saints fly-half has been passed fit to start against France in Oita on Sunday.

It is a decision Gatland insisted has not taken lightly, but the Wales coach affirmed Biggar has no doubts over his fitness.

"We went through, made sure in terms of consulting the right people and making sure that they were aware of everything, getting him scanned, the independent consultant - that was important," said Gatland in a news conference.

"Dan's been fit for three or four days in terms of having passed those [concussion protocols], so we are taking all the proper precautions.

"But he's very confident that he's 100 per cent."

Gatland did, however, concede extra caution will have to be taken with Biggar should he sustain another head injury.

"He's desperate to play," Gatland added.

"We've just got to make sure if it does happen, if he gets a knock in the next few games, the next couple of months, obviously there would probably be a different course of action."

Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones has also been selected and will join Brian O'Driscoll in third on the all-time list for international Test appearances with his 141st cap.

"It's one chance to stay or you know where you are going," he said of Wales' ambitions for Sunday's clash.

"It's funny because the planning for this has probably been in Warren's head for the last 10 years rather than the last four years, two years, or 18 months.

"He is constantly building and what we have achieved or have not comes down to this moment."

Warren Gatland is happy for Wales to fly under the radar at the Rugby World Cup, even if they are strong favourites to see off France and reach the semi-finals.

Australia coach Michael Cheika labelled the reigning Six Nations champions as favourites ahead of the Wallabies' clash with Gatland's side in Pool D.

Wales edged out Australia 29-25 on their way to finishing top of the group with a perfect record, yet Gatland believes other teams still left standing in the tournament are getting "a lot more talk" in the media.

Still, they will be strongly fancied to see off France in an all-European quarter-final tie, having come from 16-0 down to beat them 24-19 in Paris in their opening Six Nations match.

"If you take out the World Cup warm-up games, we have won 18 competitive games in a row, we are Grand Slam champions and we know, as we go on in tournaments, we get stronger and more confident and more cohesive as a unit," Gatland said.

"We are building nicely, going under the radar. There is still a lot more talk about other teams and games and that suits us. We've had a great record against France - we've won seven of the last eight games.

"There was an edge to this week and the players have been incredibly professional in the way they've prepared.

"The message to the players is you've got two choices – we are either on the plane on Monday going home or we are here until the end of the tournament."

Maxime Medard acknowledged France must rise to the challenge on Sunday, or else Wales will dominate them at Oita Stadium.

"If we don't raise our level, the Welsh are going to ride all over us," the full-back told the media. "The Welsh have to be favourites. The team has been one of the best in the world for several years.

"You have to keep in mind that the difference between the big teams and the rest is that, in games where you're in trouble, where it turns into an arm wrestle, the big teams don't give in. Wales are a very big team."

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Wales – Josh Adams

Dan Biggar's availability is a boost to Wales, the fly-half fit to feature following a blow to the head against Fiji, but it is Josh Adams who seems most likely to grab the headlines.

Adams has scored five tries already and the Cardiff Blues wing will be eager to propel Wales into the last four.

France – Guilhem Guirado

Having been left out of France's past two matches following a reported bust-up with coach Jacques Brunel, hooker Guilhem Guirado will return to lead Les Bleus as captain.

If ever there was an opportunity to show his worth, then this will surely be it for the 33-year-old.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- France beat Wales 9-8 in the only previous World Cup meeting between the sides - the 2011 semi-final. Wales captain Sam Warburton was sent off after 18 minutes of the contest.

- Wales won all of their pool stage matches for the first time since 1987. This four-game winning streak is their joint longest at the World Cup and they have never won five in a row in the competition.

- Since the start of 2018, France have lost six Test matches in which they have been leading at half-time.

- Alun Wyn Jones is in line to play a record 19th World Cup match for Wales, surpassing Gethin Jenkins' tally of 18 appearances.

Sevu Reece and George Bridge add a "fearless" edge to New Zealand's squad for the Rugby World Cup quarter-final tie with Ireland, according to assistant coach Ian Foster.

Reece and Bridge have both impressed so far for the two-time defending champions in Japan and have made the cut for Steve Hansen's XV against Ireland on Saturday as two of the world's best teams face off.

The duo's inclusion sees Rieko Ioane and the experienced Ben Smith miss out on Hansen's 23-man squad, but Foster believes the World Cup debutants can be key.

"There is a little bit of fearlessness about them," Foster told a news conference.

"Some of it is probably because they haven't been at a World Cup before, they probably don't what is at stake, in some sense.

"But they are really sensible young men. They train hard, they play hard. When you haven't got Ben and Rieko in the group, that is a tough decision, because they are two pretty special people in our group.

"We just felt that George and Sevu have done enough. There is a bit of spark there and we will run with that."

Ireland lost to hosts Japan in their second outing but comfortable victories over Scotland, Russia and Samoa saw them progress, as they recovered some form following doubts coming into the tournament.

Foster sees confidence and momentum as the deciding factors in this last-eight tie.

"I am pretty sure they will have some tricks up their sleeve, and we like to think we have got a couple up our sleeve," he added.

"That is the nature of preparing for a big Test match. But to be honest, games like this are often not about a special trick or surprise. It is about your confidence, how you deal with the pressure and how you keep executing your own game.

"It is one thing to know each other's game, it's another to execute it properly and to stop the other person doing it. That is what play-offs are about, it is about having that composure to trust yourself and really back yourself to keep doing what you do well."

Jamie Joseph has made just one change heading into Japan's first appearance in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final, as Ryohei Yamanaka returns to the fold.

Full-back Yamanaka switched with William Tupou throughout the pool stage, with the latter starting against Scotland as the hosts secured their place in a World Cup knockout stage for the first time.

However, Tupou suffered a head injury 51 minutes into the triumph over Gregor Townsend's side and does not feature in the 23 for Sunday's showdown with in-form South Africa.

Yamanaka replaced Tupou against Scotland and the 31-year-old will start in Tokyo, with the only other changes coming among the replacements.

Amanaki Lelei Mafi had not featured since going off against Ireland, but Joseph is able to welcome the number eight back into the squad.

Wimpie van der Walt and Lomano Lemeki have been recalled to the bench, with Uwe Helu and Hendrik Tui missing out.

Jiwon Koo had been a doubt after sustaining a rib injury against Scotland but has been passed fit to start.

Kotaro Matsushima is tied with Wales' Josh Adams at the top of the try scoring charts with five, and starts again at right wing, while the tournament's leading points scorer Yu Tamura - he has 48 - is at fly half.


Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka, Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Kenki Fukuoka, Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Koo, Luke Thompson, James Moore, Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno.

Replacements: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Wimpie van der Walt, Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Lomano Lava Lemeki.

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