LONDON, October 30- New Zealand are battling history as they seek to become the first team to retain the World Cup title against Australia at Twickenham on Saturday.
This All Black team has been described by many as the greatest of all time, and they have the chance to cement that position in the final, but to do so they need to pull off a number of feats no team has yet managed.
Remarkably Australia have never lost a World Cup game on British soil, stretching back through three World Cups now, including both of their previous wins in 1991 and 1999. New Zealand will have to end that record.
In contrast, New Zealand are still to win a World Cup on foreign soil, while both teams target an unprecedented third world title.
The only previous final between southern hemisphere teams also turned out badly for the All Blacks, with Joel Stransky’s late drop goal famously giving the Springboks victory in 1995.
And if we want to go for more obscure omens, New Zealand’s record on Halloween is also poor, having lost to Llanelli (1972), Munster (1980) and France (1999) on October 31.
While those stats count against the All Blacks, recent history is certainly on their side, with just one defeat in their last 12 games against the Wallabies.
That came in Sydney this year, and also cost them the Rugby Championship, but even the most stubborn Kiwi supporters would probably take that loss if it means a win at Twickenham on Saturday.
The game in Sydney was the only time they’ve ever faced the combination of Michael Hooper and David Pocock and that will surely be the key to the game.
New Zealand won’t be as naïve as Argentina in trying to play the ball out of their own half, but they also need to ensure that the clearouts are instantaneous whenever they venture near Pocock.
In that regard, Jerome Kaino will be key. Slightly less heralded than the departing King Richie and former world player of the year Kieran Read, Kaino is no doubt the strongest player pound for pound in the team, if not the tournament.
If he can get to Pocock before he clamps down on the ball, New Zealand will avoid the killer turnovers that were so costly for the Pumas last weekend.
Discipline was the watch-word for both teams after finishing on the wrong side of the penalty count, while Australia’s first up defence will have to improve. If New Zealand match Argentina’s 13 clean breaks, they will not finish tryless.
After the semi-final defeat to the All Blacks, Victor Matfield admitted that there was no panic on Kiwi faces, even when they trailed by five early in the second half. This team have got so used to winning that there appears to be no doubt in the team.
That’s not surprising with three Test centurions in their starting line-up, as well as eight players who started in the last final.
Australia aren’t lacking for experience, particularly with Stephen Moore, Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, but they are still relying on a number of players in their first World Cups, including the returning Scott Sio.
Four years ago when the teams met at the semi-final stage, Australia were overwhelmed as Cory Jane and Israel Dagg ruled the airs and Quade Cooper was unable to turn the tide.
Australia look to have more solidity to them this time, but when it comes down the basics, there is still nobody who can compare with the All Blacks.
Team news: Just the one change for Australia, for whom Scott Sio is fit to reclaim his place in the starting lineup. He was always expected to make it, but the question will be, just how fit is he? The same applies to Israel Folau, who has looked a long way off 100 percent for much of the tournament. At his best, he is Ben Smith’s only challenger for the world’s best full-back, but he’s not shown it during this tournament.
As for New Zealand, they’ve stuck with the same 23 that beat the Springboks, which means no place for Wyatt Crockett. He limped off half an hour into the quarter-final win over France, and instead it will be Joe Moody, not in the squad at the start of the tournament, who starts the World Cup final. Other than that, it’s pretty much a full-strength side, a far cry from their fly-half woes four years ago.
Players to watch:
For Australia: Australia held their breath this week over the fitness of Scott Sio, the man who has turned their scrum around, almost as much as Mario Ledesma. While he struggled against Scotland, he should be able to hold his own against Owen Franks, provided he is fully fit. That will be key for the Wallabies, who need to get at least parity in the set-piece if they are to put New Zealand under pressure.
The other key man for Australia will be Bernard Foley, the man who has earned Michael Cheika’s trust at ten. While he has been up and down from the kicking tee during the tournament, he has looked close to his best in the rest of his game. His wide passing offers something more than New Zealand faced last week from South Africa, and for all the talk of him being the conservative alternative to Quade Cooper, he also has seven tries in just 20 starts and is very much a threat with ball in hand.
For New Zealand: The greatest of All Black hookers Sean Fitzpatrick must wonder whether he and Dane Coles even play the same position, given how much time Coles spends out on the wing. It’s clearly a tactical decision from Steve Hansen, who has shifted Coles into what was Kieran Read’s position on the wing. There are few quicker hookers in international rugby, but if World Cup knockout games are won in the tight, then Coles might have to tweak his game a little. His World Cup performances have arguably been a little less impressive than earlier in the season.
The other big player to watch will be Dan Carter, finally playing in his first World Cup final, at the fourth and final attempt. The greatest fly-half of them all deserves to go out on the biggest stage, and after Stirling Mortlock, France and injury denied him, he was not going to be stopped this year. His snap drop goal against the Boks showed how much he has grown as a player, and in the biggest game of his career, expect him to step up.
Head-to-head: We’ve talked about the back row battle earlier, but another intriguing clash will be the contrasting inside centres. One of Michael Cheika’s biggest calls was going to get the experienced Wallabies playing overseas, and none has been more influential than Matt Giteau. While New Zealand are probably the best passing team from one to 15, Australia arguably have the best two passers of a ball on Saturday in Giteau and Foley. Those two combined to stunning effect against Argentina, with each delivering a pin-point pass to send Adam Ashley-Cooper over. In that game Australia showed their patience when they got in behind and didn’t rush things. They’ll need to do that again to beat the All Blacks.
In contrast, Ma’a Nonu will provide a far more direct target for the Wallabies, and caused South Africa all sorts of problems. Having said that, Nonu is now one of the most complete centres in the world, his beautifully-delayed final pass to Beauden Barrett was testament to that. Add in a much improved kicking game, and Nonu takes some stopping, and he will also hope to keep Foley and Giteau busy in defence. In his final appearance for the All Blacks, expect Nonu to cause Australia plenty of problems, with Sonny Bill Williams waiting in the wings to land the knockout punch.
2015: New Zealand won 41-13 in Auckland
2015: Australia won 27-19 in Sydney
2014: New Zealand won 29-28 in Brisbane
2014: New Zealand won 51-20 in Auckland
2014: The sides drew 12-12 in Sydney
2013: New Zealand won 41-33 in Dunedin
2013: New Zealand won 27-16 in Wellington
2013: New Zealand won 47-29 in Sydney
2012: The sides drew 18-18 in Brisbane
2012: New Zealand won 22-0 in Auckland
2012: New Zealand won 27-19 in Sydney
2011: New Zealand won 20-6 in Auckland
Prediction: The top two sides in the world meet in a World Cup final for arguably the first time since 1995 and yet it’s hard to see past New Zealand. For the final time, Richie McCaw, probably, and Dan Carter, definitely, with turn out in black, and we fancy them to prove just too strong for Australia, despite the presence of David Pocock. New Zealand by 5!
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.
Date: Saturday, October 31
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 16:00 local
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Wayne Barnes (England)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)