Both New Zealand and Australia can claim to be number one
Once more into the fray for indisputably the best teams at this Rugby World Cup
The top-two sides in the world. The two most complete sides in the tournament. The world’s best referee. The forecast is set fair, for Twickenham, sprinkled in brown autumnal leaves – a dry day and 14 degrees. That rarity, a great World Cup, may actually have even more of a rarity, a great final.
With the pre-match lights fanfare, the sense of a truly momentous once- in-four-years occasion is guaranteed. The rugby shouldn’t be too bad either.
All was good-humoured and slightly quirky, albeit this was before an English website put up a photo of Mario Ledesma carrying a sheet of paper with what were apparently bullet points of some of the Australian game plan.
Time was when that might have been considered theft. It won’t have pleased or helped the Wallabies, but it won’t bother them too much either.
Previously Dan Carter confirmed his penchant for wearing superhero costumes. Marriage and fatherhood, at his wife’s insistence, meant they had to go to make way for a nursery.
‘A bit weird’
“I know it sounds a bit weird but Ali Williams and I, we like to dress up,” he revealed to widespread laughter. “Not sure of the original reasoning behind that, but yeah, still got a bit of a collection at my mate’s house. His favourite remains his “first one – The Phantom!”
On a more poignant note, he and Beauden Barrett spoke of landing kicks in their back garden from about the age of five, with a World Cup final at stake, and what made Carter pull himself through the dark times in latter years.
“It’s just the love of the All Black jersey. It’s something I always wanted to do, and I got a taste of it in 2003 for the first time and I never wanted it to end. I had a pretty good run for the first eight to 10 years of my career, and then I found it pretty tough with injuries. So just that love of the jersey, wanting to play at the highest level, to represent my country with your best mates is something that really gets you through those tough times,” he said, and thanked his coaches for sticking by him.
It would be fitting for Carter to see off his wonderful Test career as the greatest 10 of them all by winning his first final after an unlucky World Cup history which saw him on the bench in 2003 and injured in both ’07 and ’11. But he is anyway, and it was a little mischievous, of Stuart Barnes to suggest to Carter that this game could define his career.
After Carter had politely suggested otherwise, Steve Hansen – about the most pro-active coach at press conferences – understandably sought to interject. “Can I just add to that?”
“I don’t think a guy who has played over 100 Test matches, like Dan has, his career is not defined by one game. He has already defined his career as one of greatness.
“He has added to the All Black jersey in many, many ways over many, many Test matches. It is an important Test match for him and everyone involved, but it will certainly won’t define his career. That has already been written in the history books.”
Indeed, and what other flyhalf is ever going to play a century of games and average 15 points a match.
It would also be a fitting finale for Richie McCaw, and for Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who complete their world record midfield partnership of 62 games together (11 more than messrs D’Arcy and O’Driscoll). But sport doesn’t always do fitting farewells.
That said, Hansen noted. “The backrows can only operate if your front five do the job. Rugby hasn’t changed as long as most of us have been breathing. If your front five go forward, your backrow go forward and your backs go forward, and whoever does that tomorrow will probably have the easier ride.”
Looking at the tight fives, New Zealand’s is better, especially if Scott Sio is in any way encumbered by his elbow, and especially so in the secondrow. At halfback too, Aaron Smith and Carter give the All Blacks an edge, especially in goal-kicking, but there’s not much to choose between the midfields and back three. For impact, the All Blacks have the best in Sonny Bill Williams, the leading off-loader of the tournament. The again, Kurtley Beale has been pretty good too.
If these All Black have kept their best until last, they should win. But if they haven’t, they may well not. They certainly won’t with a repeat of four years ago, for these Wallabies have way more strings to their bow than France.
Unlike South Africa, they won’t unduly respect the All Blacks as a superior attacking force and seek to contain them. Australia will seek to bisect them or go round them as opposed to run over them.
They’re also smart. Always have been. They may seek to emulate the ’Boks by targeting Conrad Smith and then go after the space out wide when he’s at the bottom of a ruck. One ventures that Nehe Milner-Skudder will again be targeted in the air as the Boks did, and that he and Julien Savea may have more questions asked of them in defence.
The Wallabies are clearly in a good place mentally. Australia have still never lost a match in the UK or Ireland in three World Cups. They like Twickenham, and this is their fifth game in a row here.
Australia also have a habit of denying New Zealand record, landmark wins, and they could just have their biggest trick yet left up their sleeves.
Rugby World Cup final: New Zealand v Australia, Twickenham, 4pm -TV3, ITV
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio. Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Dean Mumm, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Kurtley Beale.
New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody. Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)