Brian Hightower

AllBlacks look to win back-to-back World Cups, let legends take final bows

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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.

Rugby World Cup Preview: Wallabies avoid crisis, move on to face Pumas

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Australia v Argentina:  Twickenham Stadium, Sunday 12 pm ET

Australia had lost.

With only a few minutes left to play in last week’s Quarterfinal and trailing by two points at Twickenham, they had been outworked by Scotland, and their World Cup ambitions appeared to be toasted.


Australia had won! In what will forever be a bile inducing memory for the Scots, the Wallabies were on the sweet side of the most controversial call in the tournament.  With the air suddenly gone in a very Scotch partisan stadium, Aussie kicker Bernard Foley lined up a penalty and drove a three point dagger into Highland hearts to steal a one point victory.

Hours before Australia made their Houdini-like escape from Twickenham, the Argentinians had beaten up an already battered Irish side in Cardiff. With several key Ireland players watching from the grandstand, the Pumas smelled blood.  They were savage up front, and lethal on attack, asking many questions of an Irish defense that, simply ran out of answers.


Expect Australia to use their early Christmas gift to acknowledge a mediocre performance and then rebound with a vengeance. Roboflanker David Pocock is back for the Wallabies. He will team with Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy for the first time since they embarrassed England a month ago, but the fastest back row in rugby had better be on their game, because the burly young Argentinian forwards pack a serious punch.

Australia’s scrum coach is Mario Ledesma, the famous Argentinian prop, who has added skill and grit to a formerly struggling Aussie pack (but may be secretly pulling for the Pumas). Scrum time becomes an enticing component of the match with pride on the line.

The Argentine backline, historically prone to the kicking game, now dares to attack from anywhere, even deep in their own half.  But they must show up on defense to have a chance to stop Australia.

Late in this game, it will come down to who gets better minutes from their benches.

Advantage Australia.


Rugby World Cup Preview: Springboks Look to Tame the Unleashed All Blacks


New Zealand vs. South Africa:

Saturday, Twickenham Stadium @2:30pm ET on NBCSports

Speculation that France would use their historic Je ne sais quoi to threaten New Zealand All Black supremacy in the World Cup Quarterfinals was put to rest early on in the match. The befuddled French were in disarray on and off the field, as a mutiny against Head Coach Phillipe St.-Andre days before the match manifested in a forgettable night in Cardiff.  The black clad warriors absolutely dismantled Les Bleus, atoning for the disaster of ’07 when they were vanquished by France on the exact same stage. It was a scary display of skill and aggression that put their South African opponents on notice.

Speaking of South Africa, they were taken to the brink by Wales last week, and needed to manufacture a miracle in the closing minutes to keep their Championship hopes alive.  That moment came from a deft, no-look, behind the back pass by #8 Duane Vermuelen to halfback Fourie DuPreez, when the world, and most importantly the Welsh defense, thought that the behemoth would opt to go bulldozer instead of playmaker.


The match-up this weekend features a Springbok team whose earlier wounds from the World Cup have become hardened callouses.  While plaudits continue to be bestowed upon other team’s openside flankers, ‘Bok #7 Schalk Burger is quietly putting up the event’s best numbers. This is the last time that he will ever go head-to-head against the iron man All Black flanker, Richie McCaw, which alone is worth the price of admission.

The most compelling battle will be between the elder statesman Kiwi flyhalf Dan Carter, and the South African upstart Handre Pollard. Carter, 33, broke out the Wizard’s stick on Saturday night against the French proving that age is only a number. Pollard should hope so. At 21, he is only recently old enough to buy the legend a beer. Yet, despite his proximity to puberty, the South African wunderkind has the hopes of a proud rugby nation resting on his shoulders, and the skills to fulfill them.

After the forwards from each team attempt to grind each other to a pulp, they’ll have to figure out a way to get the ball to the corners. The All Blacks are more likely to use their handling skills to go wide, while the Springboks have a knack for finding their wings with well-placed chip kicks.

A fast, open game favors the skills of New Zealand. If it’s a tight, plodding affair, South Africa has the edge. This could be a battle for the ages.