They have been hailed by the South African coach as the best team ever, and may indeed be that. They are led by two of the greatest players ever to have pulled on the famous black jersey, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter; and for both it may be their last international hurrah. Carter has an added incentive – not that one will be needed: he was injured and missed the 2011 final.
Yet there are a few doubts. This is a very experienced New Zealand side, and experience is vital. But may it be just a bit over the top? Are even McCaw and Carter, or Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith in the centre, quite the players they were. A year ago Kieran Read was the best No 8 in the world, but he’s made a few mistakes in this tournament. Such doubts of course verge on heresy. The All Blacks know how to win even when their game isn’t in prime order. Why should it be different today?
It may not be, but Australia have looked the best side throughout the tournament. Their defence has been outstanding, and more often than not World Cup finals have been won by the team with the better defence. Australia conceded one try to England, no tries against Wales and Argentina. Only Scotland, scoring three tries, had them in defensive trouble. All three were of course what is called opportunist – which means that players were sufficiently alert to seize opportunities. Meanwhile the Wallabies scored five tries against Scotland, four against Argentina. Their attack is as sharp as their defence is solid.
When Australia beat New Zealand in the Rugby Championship their coach Michael Cheika played two No 7s, David Pocock and Michael Hooper, and won the battle of the breakdown. Pocock was missing from the return match in Auckland which the All Blacks won comfortably. He is back today and he and Hooper have been consistently brilliant in the tournament. If they control the breakdown, or even disrupt it, mastering McCaw, the All Blacks’ rhythm will be disturbed. They reckon that any ball held at the breakdown for more than three seconds is poor ball, not worth trying to move wide.
Suppose the doubters are right in thinking that this New Zealand side may be only clinging on to its greatness – wishful thinking perhaps, but nevertheless, just suppose: what then? There’s no doubt that Australia are improving. They’re unrecognisable from the confused rabble that Cheika inherited,and he has added experience and know-how to his team by asserting his will and recalling Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell from their lucrative exile in France. So is this a match between a team breasting the summit and one that may be on the downward slope?
It’s possible, but I wouldn’t count on it. New Zealand had the harder semi-final. Though the score was so close – 20-18 – they controlled most of the game against a very powerful South African side. Only an unusual propensity to grant the Springboks a succession of kickable penalties kept South Africa in the match. Previously in the quarter-final they utterly demolished France, running in nine tries. It’s difficult, however, to judge the significance of that victory. France, badly beaten by Ireland in their last pool match the week before, were unbelievably bad, slow and unimaginative.
Someone merely looking at the quarter-final – the All Blacks running riot against France, the Wallabies scraping home against Scotland – might be excused for thinking that this makes New Zealand hot favourites today. Yet these quarter-finals may be misleading. Scotland were a very much better team than France that weekend, may even indeed be a rather better team than France any day just now. The All Blacks outpaced and outthought France, who were desperately slow and ill-organised at the breakdown. They’re not likely to have things so easy today.
If, despite everything, New Zealand are rightly favourites today, it’s not because they can play brilliantly, for Australia can do that too. It’s because of their mental strength , their refusal to accept defeat, and their oft-proven ability to win close matches. Their self-belief is absolute. Australia have reason to believe in themselves too. Nevertheless, though they will tell themselves that past results count for nothing, they know that they have lost nine of the last ten matches against the All Blacks. That’s a burden of knowledge hard to shake off; it’s a bit like a Calcutta Cup game at Twickenham for Scotland.
They may just do it, though, and if they do, then we can look back on that afternoon in Newcastle and dream of what we might have achieved but for that lost line-out and the penalty that followed. Meanwhile Craig Joubert would surely expect to receive lots of Christmas Cards from Oz.