And then there were two.
We’ve seen it all in this World Cup – giant-killings, party-poopings, redemptions and jaw-dropping excellence – but we’ve gradually whittled it down to just two sides. Or, rather, the tournament has been whittled down from a World Cup, to a Rugby Championship… to a Bledisloe Cup. One thing that the protagonists and fans of one of the sport’s greatest rivalries definitely don’t need is extra motivation for this one – but they’ve got it. In the form of being crowned World Champions. No pressure there, then.
Experience, class and a ‘been-there, won-that’ mentality ooze through the team, with only a couple of names relatively new on the regular selection front – in the shape of prop Joe Moody (called up only a couple of weeks ago) and the electric Nehe Milner-Skudder.
You can attempt to analyse the All Blacks all you want but all it boils down to is that every man who pulls on a silver-fern is a very good, very smart rugby player. The set-piece is solid, the basic skill-set is excellent, the balance of the side is spot on. Want to play an open game against them? Good luck with that. Fancy an arm-wrestle? Bring it on. The current New Zealand side has been the best team in the World for at least 6 years because they have an all-court ability to meet different kind of challenges and inevitably dictate the way that the game pans out. The only time we have ever really seen the All Blacks look wobbly is when sides force the game themselves, and do so accurately – and there are very few that have the nerve or the execution to do it well – but it can be done and, as so often is the case, the breakdown is the focus. Last week the Springboks had the upper hand in the first half because they won the gainline battle with their back row and because Francois Louw was an absolute menace over the ball whenever the men in black tried to put some phases together – in the Rugby Championship, they were turned over by the Wallabies because they suddenly couldn’t control their own ball in the face of the Hooper-Pocock axis. Inevitably – as they showed last week – they adapt, change the way they play (for example, by kicking more), and recover. But they are not invincible.
Although they are pretty bloody close, and you can bet that they won’t leave anything out there on the pitch on Saturday. This is so much more than just a World Cup Final (if you can have ‘just’ a World Cup Final) for the Kiwis. This is the chance to write history – to become the first side ever to retain the title. But, even more importantly, their legacy is on the line. Probably the best side to ever play rugby will see five of its icons – McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Smith, Mealamu – retire after Saturday evening and there can be little argument that this will be the end of an era. How the sun sets and what legacy is left behind – that’s what the All Blacks are fighting for.
As for the Wallabies, their chances of causing an upset and winning their first World Cup for 16 years will be hinging on the performances of two men – David Pocock and Bernard Foley. I write a bit more about Pocock below, but the best the All Blacks can hope for with him is to keep him anonymous – the man who has the capacity to implode every now and again is the gifted fly-half. I should specify that I am one of the Waratah playmaker’s biggest fans and his breakthrough in 2014 was superb, but this year he has – in parts – looked a wee bit shaky. The New Zealanders will only have to look back to the first half of their loss against the men in gold earlier this year to know that they can shut down a dangerous Wallaby backline at source – Foley (not helped by the erratic Phipps, admittedly) was all over the place: dropping passes, scuffing kicks, and all because the wall of black was pressing at an alarming speed. Make no mistake, he will be targeted. But the second half of that game showed the other side to Foley…’the Iceman’. The man who knocks over monumentally high-pressure kicks on a regular basis (for the Super XV title in 2014, to knock-out Scotland just a fortnight ago) came out and bossed the game – helped by his pack gaining the upper hand, he shook off the press by the All Black defence by varying his play and executing superbly, with fantastic vision. If the Iceman is the Foley we see on Saturday, then Chieka’s boys will fancy their chances.
Their display against the Pumas will have given Hansen food for thought – their defence (especially on the goal-line) has been mostly exceptional, but there were points when they were pierced far too easily around the fringes by runners attacking inside the 10 channel. If Cordero can scoot through, then so can Milner-Skudder and, with less subtlety, Julian ‘the Bus’ Savea. But the Kiwi boss will also have noted how clinical this Australia side have become, biding their time patiently and using the hands of Giteau and Foley to probe the wider channels before exploiting the mismatches and overlaps…the Wallabies have come a long way in 12 months.
And that makes me think that Australia will want this just as much as the legendary All Blacks. Theirs is a story of redemption – one year ago, the Australians were the laughing stock of international rugby, a walking catastrophe of PR disasters and on-field mediocrity. Now, they look like the real deal. Their disposal of England in the group stages will go down as one of the great displays in this World Cup and you get a sense, in stark contrast to the team they face on Saturday, that this is a team which is at the beginning of their journey. This is their opportunity to complete the resurrection of Australian rugby.
Buckle up, brace yourself, pack a spare pair of underpants – because this will go down to the wire.
New Zealand Team News
Steve Hansen has made my job a lot more difficult because, instead of waffling on for two paragraphs about mundane team changes and selection issues, I’m left to ponder the deeper tactical aspects of the All Blacks’ strategy after he named an unchanged squad from the one that defeated South Africa in the semi-final. The fact that they got through 80 minutes against the Springboks without getting anybody crocked deserves some sort of award in itself.
Starting Line-up: Ben Smith; Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea; Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Kieran Read.
Substitutes: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams.
Richie McCaw. Well, how unoriginal of me. But come on, one last chance to see the old-master – the Yoda of the breakdown – in action? Sign me up. His battle with Pocock promises to be absolutely epic and you can expect him to reel out every trick in the book to keep his opposite numbers at bay – if you have my drinking game to hand, it could get messy. McCaw will know that his role on Saturday will be predominantly protective – if he can neutralise the Aussie stealers – the All Blacks have more than enough to build the phases and score some tries. By the same token, enjoy watching the majestic Carter, Nonu, Smith axis in full flow for one last time.
Australia Team News
Michael Chieka, well on the way to earning the deserved nickname of ‘Magic Mike’ (although one hopes he keeps his clothes on) has made just one change to the side which disposed of the Pumas in their semi-final, dropping most-capped prop James Slipper to the bench after his struggles against the Argentina pack, and re-instating the fit-again and mightily impressive young Scott Sio. I don’t think that Sio’s return can be understated in terms of its importance – under the guidance of Mario Ledesma, the Aussies have moulded a prop that finally offers set-piece power and stability to match their talents in the loose. And, to be fair, Kepu’s improvements have been staggering too, so you just wonder if they may be fancying themselves in the scrum against the World Champions – the Kiwis are no mugs there, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s far from their strongest suit.
Starting Line-up: Israel Folau; Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell; Bernard Foley, Will Genia; Scott Sio, Stephen Moore (captain), Sekope Kepu, Kane Douglas, Rob Simmons, Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper, David Pocock.
Subs: Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Greg Holmes, Dean Mumm, Ben McCalman, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Kurtley Beale.
David Pocock. Strike two for predictability on my part, but I don’t care. Yes, he is part of a great unit with Hooper and the unsung Fardy and, yes, Foley is a key man in his own right, but so much of the hope for the men in gold depends on this guy. I am not exaggerating when I say that he turns the Wallabies from a good team into a great team. He is, without question (sorry All Black fans) the best openside and breakdown operator in the world at the moment, regardless of the number on his back, and if he can break down the New Zealand attack with anything like the regularity he has shown against others, then his side will have the upper hand.
Dan Carter v Bernard Foley. Admit it. There have been times - over the last three years - when you might perhaps have wondered whether Carter, after all his sabbaticals and injuries, had still got 'it'. This World Cup showed how spectacularly misplaced any doubts have been - his control is still as sublime as ever, his timing right on point, and he still has a few tricks up his sleeve to break even the meanest defences. He will go down as the greatest fly-half in the history of the international game - and that is what Foley must try and emulate...especially the 'control' element. Carter has performed on the biggest stage for well over a decade now but, as above, Foley still has his wobbles - for Australia to win, he simply must keep a cool head and make the right calls under the most intense pressure. Just like the man wearing black opposite him.
The honour falls to me to predict the World Cup final, which means – when I get it spectacularly wrong – the embarrassment is all the greater. That said, I have picked up splinters from sitting on the fence when trying to call this one. The All Blacks have the experience, but I think the Wallabies are one of the few sides with the weapons to rattle them. One point that will be critical is that the All Blacks have the stronger bench of the two squads, which could be a decider later on, but I cannot shake from my memory the images of the ‘Pooper’-axis (tee-hee) ruffling the Kiwi feathers just 3 months ago. A lot has changed. I’m not sure if the result will. Wallabies by 2.
PS. Can we all blow a great big raspberry to whoever scheduled the Final please? If you remember 2003 and 2011, watching the biggest game of the last four years wasn’t that tenuous (although forcing Guinness down at that time was a challenge), since they all kicked off at 8am, thanks to the night-time kick-offs down under. This one? It kicks off at 4pm. 3am in Australia, 5am in New Zealand. Probably just so it doesn’t clash with the f*cking X-Factor.
No wonder everybody bloody hates us.
Oh, by the way. I suppose I should make a quick call for the 'bronze-final' game that the organisers have ridiculously forced poor South Africa and Argentina to play. The Pumas have been forced into a few changes and so I think that the Springboks will have too much to them - should be entertaining though. Springboks by 10.