When the Rugby World Cup was first played out back in 1987, this was probably the final everyone wanted to see. Now, 28 years later, the rugby world can finally sit back and enjoy the match that had been promised for decades but until now has remained elusive. It is fitting for a tournament that has become all about the Southern Hemisphere that we should be treated to a staple of the Rugby Championship – a Bledisloe Cup match between the two greatest rivals in the sport. Except this time, the prize on offer will be of much greater significance.
Victory for either side would be remarkable for very different reasons. The All Blacks have the chance to become the first team to successfully defend their title as World Champions. The sheer consistency that New Zealand have shown since their quarter final defeat in 2007 is an admirable feat, and if they were to claim the title this weekend, it would be hard to argue that they didn’t deserve it. The fast-paced, free-flowing rugby that they play is easy on the eye and is a joy to behold. Taking the title against their greatest rivals in the sport would also be a fitting send-off for Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, the two pillars of the national team for the past 10 years.
For Australia, the fact that they are in this final at all is nothing short of a quite remarkable turnaround. 2014 had been a disaster for Australian Rugby. They had come third in the Rugby Championship, becoming the first team to lose to Argentina in the tournament, and the only joy they found in the end of year internationals was a nervy 36-40 win against the Barbarians, and a narrow 28-33 victory over Wales. Ireland, England and France were all able to chalk up victories against the Wallabies in what must have been one of their most dire tours to date. However, since taking charge of the team, Michael Cheika has completely turned Australia’s fortunes around – winning the Rugby Championship with a 27-19 win over Saturday’s opponents New Zealand to claim the title. They’ve also had the joy of eliminating England from their own World Cup, with a resounding 33-10 win in the pool stages. Considering rugby union’s fairly low standing in Australia in comparison with the likes of rugby league and Australian rules football, victory would come as a huge boost for the game in the country.
So how do the two teams match up and what do they need to do in order to win the World Cup on Saturday? A quick look through the Rugby World Cup archive gives little indication of what might happen this weekend. The teams have met three times in the tournament, with Australia emerging victorious in the 1991 and 2003 semi-finals, and New Zealand winning their last meeting in the 2011 semi final. This past year, the two teams have traded victories. Although Australia beat New Zealand to the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks retaliated with a 41-13 demolition in Auckland a week later to claim the Bledisloe Cup. Overall New Zealand has won more matches, enjoying a 68% winning record, but to count Australia out at this stage would be a risky move indeed. Both sides have played in three World Cup finals each, both emerging victorious twice, and both losing to a drop goal in extra time in 1995 and 2003.
For Australia, the key to victory will depend on how competitive they can be at the breakdown. As much as rugby is a team game, this will largely come down to one man in particular – David Pocock. Pocock has certainly been one of the most influential players at this world cup; his 14 turnovers in just 4 matches is a remarkable statistic, and one that New Zealand will be wary of. Australia will also look to being competitive at the set piece, an area in which they have excelled since Cheika has taken over, and they will also look to be alert defensively. The All Blacks will be relying on the fast-paced game that has rewarded them throughout the tournament, and as usual will be looking to wear their opponents down before overrunning them in the later stages of the match where their superior fitness has so often come to the forefront. Australia have been shown to be susceptible to the wide game that New Zealand play, and it is through creating overlaps on the wing where New Zealand are likely to find the greatest success.
In all honesty, it is fitting that the two teams that remain truly are the best teams in the competition and both would be deserving champions. Whatever the result at Twickenham on Saturday, the true winner will most definitely be the game of rugby union itself.
Photograph: jeanfrancois beausejour via Flickr