NEWS
10/03/2011 08:06 EDT | Updated 12/03/2011 05:12 EST

Last 8 start preparations in earnest for World Cup quarterfinals, leave pool stage behind

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - John Smit and his reigning champion Springboks are acutely aware the business end of the World Cup is upon them.

"One thing's for sure," Smit said Monday, "the real World Cup starts this week."

He didn't mean offence to the dozen teams eliminated after the 40-match pool stage, but the only surprise among the eight qualifiers is how they're lining up for the knockout stage.

Smit's South Africa squad will face Tri-Nations champion Australia in a quarterfinal at Wellington on Sunday night, a match between the only two dual World Cup winners that hadn't been expected until Ireland beat the Wallabies on Sept. 17 to upset the anticipated order of things.

All four remaining northern hemisphere teams are on one side of the quarterfinal draw, all four southern hemisphere teams on the other.

"It's definitely a tournament that's set up in two stages," said Smit, a 110-test veteran. "This is the stage where every game is do or die, so it's a different level completely."

Five days of tending to battered and bruised bodies after a sometimes brutal weekend in which seven of the eight quarterfinal spots were decided will come to end when Ireland takes on Wales in Wellington on Saturday.

England and France meet later that night in Auckland, on the eve of the southern hemisphere double-header involving top-ranked New Zealand against 2007 semifinalist Argentina and No. 2-ranked Australia vs. No. 3 South Africa.

Smit's Springboks squad has lost at home and away to Australia this year, and is coming off a 13-5 win over Samoa in a savage encounter that ended the tournament for star backline utility Francois Steyn. That's quite a dent for a team that is trying to be the first back-to-back World Cup champion, but nothing Smit can't overcome.

"Pressure's what makes the game beautiful and what creates some special performances," Smit said. "There will be nerves and I think some of the guys who haven't been around the World Cup will feel a different kind of vibe this week. It's really how you deal with it and how you use that to your advantage."

Organizers expected remaining tickets for quarterfinals to be sold quickly after announcing that 1.07 million were sold for the group stage.

"That's an incredible turnout — equivalent to filling Eden Park around 18 times," RNZ 2011 CEO Martin Snedden said. "We promised a unique experience as our Stadium of Four Million fans warmly embraced the teams and their supporters and that's exactly what happened."

Revenue from 1.34 million ticket sales to date has hit 262 million New Zealand dollars ($199 million), leaving organizers only NZ$6.5 million ($5 million) shy of pre-cup targets with eight matches still to play.

"I have no doubt we will reach our goal," Snedden said.

Australia has one of the least experienced squads at the World Cup and for all its pre-cup exploits — winning the Tri-Nations title for the first time in a decade with a deciding win over New Zealand — is entering new territory this week.

The Wallabies scrum was destroyed by a veteran Irish pack at Eden Park in the pool stage and will face another stern test from the big, gnarled, experienced Springboks eight in the quarterfinals. The appointment Monday of referee Bryce Lawrence for the match — he awarded a handful of scrum penalties to Ireland against Australia — is unlikely to have been well received by the Wallabies coach Robbie Deans.

Australia captain James Horwill said his team had been more or less playing finals rugby since that loss.

"After the Irish game, every game was a knockout game for us," Horwill said. "We couldn't drop a game. The mindset is that we have to do everything in our power to win and that's what we're going to be doing this weekend."

The Australians have had a long injury list during the tournament, but are expecting to be close to full strength on Sunday.

Steyn's injury, only a day before star New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter was also ruled out of the tournament with a training-ground injury, is more unsettling for the Springboks.

In fact, Springboks coach Peter de Villiers said the loss of Steyn was a greater blow to South Africa than the loss of Carter was to the All Blacks.

"Coming into the World Cup, he came as a fullback. We were forced to use him at centre and there he showed us just what his value is as a player and as a key man," de Villiers said. "We're going to miss him, definitely."

Carter faced the press for the first time since he injured his groin in kicking practice Saturday, ending his tournament and casting a long shadow over New Zealand's chances of winning the World Cup for the first time in 24 years.

His message to the All Blacks was simple: get on with it.

England will be missing winger Delon Armitage, one of the more impressive players in a comeback 16-12 win over Scotland last weekend that secured top spot in Pool B, after he was banned for a high tackle in that match.

Armitage pleaded guilty to a charge of foul play and was banned Monday for one match. French centre Fabrice Estebanez was banned for three weeks for a dangerous tackle in the upset loss to Tonga and will miss the rest of the tournament.

Georgia winger Lekso Gugava was suspended for five weeks Monday for a tip tackle on Argentina centre Felipe Contepomi during the Pumas' 25-7 win on Sunday, matching the harshest punishment of the tournament.

Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu was called Monday to face a misconduct hearing for criticizing Nigel Owens' refereeing performance as "absolutely horrendous," one of five players cited for disciplinary breaches in the last round of pool matches at the Rugby World Cup.

Owens was later appointed to the New Zealand-Argentina quarterfinal.

Citing commissioners have also asked Ireland prop Cian Healy for details over an alleged gouging attempt by Italy hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini in the last match of the group stage. Ireland won 36-6 to eliminate the Italians.