Stephen Larkham looking for chinks in All Black armour

Wallabies must breach a defence that has conceded only four tries in tournament

“Games against New Zealand can go all over the shop. Sometimes it opens up, sometimes it closes down,” says Australia assistant coach Stephen Larkham. Photograph:  Peter Cziborra/Reuters

“Games against New Zealand can go all over the shop. Sometimes it opens up, sometimes it closes down,” says Australia assistant coach Stephen Larkham. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

 

World Cup finals in most sports tend to be anti-climactic, taut, low-scoring affairs. Understandably, neither coaches nor players are inclined to be too ambitions lest a risky decision lead to one’s country losing a final. Who can blame them?

In the seven Rugby World Cup finals so far, there have only been 10 tries – an average of less than 1.5 per game.

There have been two completely try-less affairs, the deciders of 1995 and 2007, and only three times have both finalists crossed the whitewash.

The average total of points in the previous seven finals has been 29, but if there was a final pairing to provide a fitting climax to this vintage 2015 World Cup, it’s assuredly this one.

The two countries who’ve met each other in more Test matches than any other pair of rivals have also, in latter years, tended to provide veritable feasts of running rugby.

Over the last eight meetings between New Zealand and Australia, the average number of points per game has been over 55.

Buck the trend

Stephen Larkham, the Wallabies backs coach and one of the most creative running outhalves to grace the professional game, wasn’t remotely inclined to speculate whether this clash might buck the trend of World Cup finals.

“I wish I had a glass ball and I could tell you. Games against New Zealand can go all over the shop. Sometimes it opens up, sometimes it closes down. We haven’t got a plan either way, we’re going in there with a plan for how we want to play and then it comes down to how it’s refereed, conditions and how many mistakes are made really.”

The All Blacks have 11 survivors from the triumph of four years ago, whereas the Wallabies players are venturing into new territory.

Larkham himself played in two finals, as part of the victorious Australian team that beat France in Cardiff in 1999 and the Wallabies team which lost to England in 2003 in Sydney, their last appearance in a final. Defence coach Nathan Grey was also a member of both squads, but Larkham didn’t think their experiences were especially relevant.

“I haven’t even tried to offer them anything. The biggest thing for us in 1999 was the quarter-final stage, so there was a lot of pressure on the team coming out of the pool stages,” he recalled, in reference to their 24-9 quarter-final win over Wales.

“We were expected to do well into the knockout stages and we really struggled with that pressure through that week, but then we got over that hump and got on a roll until the final. This group here have been on a bit of a journey together, they’ve played some hard games over the last year together and have really grown as a team into this tournament; we’ve been through a fair bit. So, I don’t think there are any reflections that are going to help this team at the moment.”

The word ‘journey’ was used by Larkham and David Pocock at least eight times, while the All Blacks were only ever referred to as New Zealand, and akin to their rivals, any individualised attention was shunned in the desire to remain humble.

But when asked where Dan Carter would rate in the pantheon of outhalves, Larkham (who knows a thing or two about the position) was relatively effusive.

Number one

“Oh, number one. Clearly number one. Probably over here Jonny Wilkinson would be number one, but certainly in the Southern Hemisphere I think Dan is ranked number one. He’s had really good composure throughout this World Cup.

“His skills haven’t dropped off at all. He picks and chooses when he wants to run and he does that really well and I think he’s combining with his other team-mates very well.”

The Wallabies’ backs coach is clearly having a significant influence, for two of Adam Ashley-Cooper’s three tries, off long skip passes by Bernard Foley and Matt Giteau, were straight out of Larkham’s playbook.

“Obviously all the tries this year have come from my hard work,” he joked, before adding: “No, that was 100 per cent Bernard. We’ve practised that move for a number of weeks now, and he just took the right option on the weekend.”

The All Blacks missed only three tackles in the entirety of their semi-final win over South Africa, and have only conceded four tries in six games to date, suggesting this will be the severest test yet for the Wallabies attack.

Larkham called it “a standard New Zealand defence really”, adding: “I haven’t seen a lot different in this World Cup. They’ve got quality across the park, that’s why they’re the number one side in the world. They have that ability to defend really well at certain stages and attack really well at certain stages.

“There’s a couple of things we’ve been looking at I guess for the last couple of years in terms of trying to break it down, but you really have to wait and see how they turn up at the weekend.”

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