With the group stage of the competition over, the Rugby World Cup heads into the quarter-finals this weekend. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson profiles the four matches in Japan

England vs Australia

(Saturday, 8.15am)

England have already surpassed their results from four years ago, when they failed miserably to take advantage of playing at home and crashed out at the group stage, but with their group decider against France having been postponed at the weekend, it feels as though their World Cup is still to really get going.

Rusty against Tonga, patchy against the United States and never really out of first gear against 14-man Argentina, Eddie Jones’ side are the great unknown of the last eight. Is Owen Farrell badly out of form? How fit is Billy Vunipola? Does Jones have the balance of his back row right? We will find out this weekend.

Australia entered the tournament under something of a cloud, and things got worse when they shipped 21 points against Fiji and were then beaten by Wales. However, there were glimpses of the Wallabies’ attacking class in both of those games, and subsequent wins over Uruguay and Georgia have restored a sense of equilibrium.

Can Michael Chieka’s side repeat their 2015 win over England? For once, their scrum should hold up, and while David Pocock hasn’t been at his mercurial best in the last year or so, he remains a formidable presence at the breakdown. Throw in flyers like Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi, and it would be dangerous to take Australia lightly.

Key man: George Ford – the fly-half’s kicking has been crucial to England’s play so far this tournament. Australia will want to keep the ball in hand – can Ford ensure the match is played on his terms?

The Northern Echo:

Prediction: England to win a classic by three points

New Zealand vs Ireland

(Saturday, 11.15am)

The problem with being the best team in the world is that you are rarely seriously tested. The All Blacks kicked off the defence of their crown in fine fashion, beating South Africa on the opening weekend of the tournament, but that game will have been four weeks ago by this weekend, and in the meantime their only outings have come against Canada and Namibia. As a result, there is a risk they could be under-cooked.

Man for man, they remain the best team in the tournament, even if they are not quite as formidable as in either of the last two World Cups. The big guns will be back on Saturday, with Beauden Barrett now firmly established at full-back and Sevu Reece seemingly first choice on the wing. Significantly, Brodie Retallick should also be fully tuned-up to start in the second row.

Having sparkled against an admittedly-dreadful Scotland, Ireland ceded their position as the top-ranked side in the world when they came undone against Japan. That result doesn’t look as bad now as it did at the time, and Joe Schmidt went back to basics to secure wins over Russia and Samoa.

There will be no surprises from Ireland at the weekend, so expect a power game based around hulking ball carriers inching over the gain line. The All Blacks do not come up against that suffocating style very often – and on past evidence, they are not particularly great at countering it.

Key man: Jonny Sexton – if Ireland are going to have any chance of springing a surprise, they are going to need a fully-fit Sexton at the top of his game. Neither is a given, although there were positive signs in his performance against Samoa.

The Northern Echo:

Prediction: New Zealand to fall behind, but to rally to win by eight

Wales vs France

(Sunday, 8.15am)

If the sign of a good team is the ability to keep on winning while not quite being at their best, then Wales could well be World Cup winners in waiting. They were ripped apart in the closing stages against Australia and were battered into submission by Fiji, yet still found a way to win both matches. Consequently, they are the most battle-hardened team in the quarter-finals.

That has come at a cost, with Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies and George North all nursing knocks ahead of the weekend, but Warren Gatland’s side know how they want to play and have the power to trouble anyone. Their recent record against France is excellent, and they will expect to triumph in the weekend’s only Northern hemisphere head-to-head.

France have been typically French so far, edging out Argentina thanks to a blistering 20-minute spell, chuntering through a win over the United States and almost coming unstuck against Tonga. Had they played against England at the weekend, we would have had a much better idea of where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

The fact they have played three different scrum-halves already speaks volumes, but you wouldn’t put it past Jacques Brunel’s side to pull a performance from absolutely nowhere. Whether they can withstand the relentless Welsh ball-carrying for a full 80 minutes, however, is open to debate.

Key man: Alun Wyn Jones – Wales’ defensive strength has been the cornerstone of their success under Gatland, and no one puts in more tackles than the towering skipper.

The Northern Echo:

Prediction: France to improve, but Wales to win by a couple of tries

Japan vs South Africa

(Sunday, 11,15am)

When Japan beat South Africa four years ago, the match was billed the ‘Miracle of Brighton’. Another Japanese success on Sunday would be even more momentous, yet it would be nowhere near as much of a surprise. If not quite meeting as equals, Japan head into their first World Cup quarter-final with a nation behind them and momentum on their side.

They performed brilliantly against Scotland, sticking to their adventurous, risk-taking tactics despite the match effectively being winner-takes-all. Expect them to attack from all over the pitch again against South Africa, with their pace and invention likely to cause the Springboks problems, especially if they can get the ball out wide.

And yet this South African side will be a completely different proposition to anything they have faced so far. The Springboks are the most physical side in the tournament – they even had the All Blacks rocking on the opening weekend – and will look to batter the Japanese tacklers up front.

Their power is formidable, as emphasised by the contemptuous manner in which they brushed aside Italy, but with the likes of Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi in their backline, they are also comfortable with ball in hand. If Japan win this one, they will have reached even greater heights than they have scaled so far.

Key man: Cheslin Kolbe – if the flying winger can sustain some of the form he displayed in glimpses against the All Blacks, he could yet emerge as the star of the tournament.

The Northern Echo:

Prediction: Japan to win plenty more admirers, but to creak in the set-piece and go down by ten points