When the Rugby World Cup kicked off last month in England, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the world were New Zealand and Australia. Forty-four days and 47 matches later, the rest of the world has reshuffled in the world rankings, but the Kiwis and Aussies are still at the top, and will now battle in the Cup Final for a fitting end to a sensational tournament.
The AllBlacks, which seemed unbeatable throughout the event, finally got a close shave last week in the semis by South Africa, just sneaking by the Springboks, 20-18. A steady west London rain saturated the pitch and slowed down the game, hampering New Zealand’s breakneck attacking speed and forced them to rely on a tactical kicking game. The imposing Springboks, which normally look to grind their opponents physically, were instead forced to turn and chase the oval all afternoon. Good teams win tight battles, and the prudent execution of Plan B revealed the multi-dimensional prowess of the AllBlacks.
Meanwhile, Australia closed out its semifinal against Argentina with a comfortable 14-point margin on the scoreboard. In contrast to the weather at Twickenham on Saturday, Sunday brought sunshine, and with it, a wide open game that allowed the Wallabies to cross the Argentinian goal line on four occasions. However, at the final whistle, the faces of the victorious Aussies showed less joy than relief. Images of gold jerseys stained red were punctuated by the countenance of No. 8 David Pocock, who started the contest with a bloody nose and ended it with two swollen black eyes. By luck of the draw, they will have fewer days to recover before facing a healthier opponent.
Keys to the Cup Final:
There will be a frenzied back row contest at the breakdown, pitting the aforementioned raccoon-eyed Pocock against New Zealand’s ageless captain, Richie McCaw in his last match as an AllBlack. Pocock is currently the best ball stealer in the game, and will literally stick his face into any tackle, but McCaw is the best ever and will turn into a rabid dog to defend his legacy. However, the real back row battle will be between opposing No. 6s, Kiwi blindside flanker Jerome Kaino and Wallaby Scott Fardy, who lead their respective teams in tackles. The very reason that Pocock and McCaw can feed at the breakdown is because Fardy and Kaino have put so much chum in the water. Want to see two people put their bodies on the line? Keep an eye on Kaino and Fardy.
This will also be the curtain call for AllBlack Dan Carter. Good things just seem to emanate from his hands and feet, and having missed the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final due to injury, he also dreams of closing out his international career by doing a few overhead trophy presses. His opposite, Aussie Bernard Foley, has gone from understudy a few months ago to the man expected to bring home a third world championship for the Wallabies. Is that too much pressure?
The truth is that there are intriguing individual battles in this match at every position, and they continue all the way down the bench. Because there is such parity in the talent pool, the intangibles take over. New Zealand seems to have the edge, if nothing else, because of its collective experience, and well, they’re the AllBlacks. But no team has ever won back-to-back Rugby World Cups and Australia is relishing it’s underdog status. From the shadow of its opponent’s expectations, the Wallabies might just emerge holding a trophy.