The ‘best ever’ v ‘the best right now’?
The stage is set for a thrilling and fitting end to a Rugby World Cup that has already scaled unprecedented heights in terms of entertainment and tension.
New Zealand and Australia, the two best teams on the planet will go head-to-head for the sport’s biggest prize and a place in the history books as the first three-time winner and, should the All Blacks triumph, the first team to secure back-to-back titles.
This mouth-watering match-up pits a New Zealand side that has repeatedly been hailed as the ‘best ever’ against an Australia team that can lay claim to being the ‘best right now’ having accounted for their cross-Tasman rivals – along with fellow southern hemisphere giants Argentina and South Africa – on their way to this year’s Rugby Championship crown.
It is a theme that can be applied to other elements of this fascinating fixture including the showdown between New Zealand’s Richie McCaw and Australia’s David Pocock.
McCaw has set the standard for back-row play for much of the last 14 years that has included a world record 148 Test caps. In particular, his pilfering prowess at the breakdown has impressed and infuriated in equal measure throughout a glittering career that not only includes a World Cup winners’ medal but also three World Rugby Player of the Year awards – the only player to achieve such a feat.
While McCaw’s place among the all-time greats cannot be questioned his physical powers are not what they once were with Pocock now considered the master of the breakdown. His priceless and unrivalled ability to conjure what are often game-defining turnovers make him, for many, the best and most valuable player in the game today.
His influence was greater than any other during the victories over pool rivals England and Wales and semi-final opponents Argentina. It is no surprise the Wallabies’ World Cup dreams came closest to being dashed when he was absent through injury for their narrow quarter-final victory over Scotland.
But perhaps the most intriguing match-up is the one off the field – and specifically in the coaching box.
Steve Hansen has been part of the New Zealand set-up for so long he is almost as recognisable as their world famous jersey. He has been a key figure for a dominant All Blacks side for over a decade and earned a promotion to head coach having helped Graham Henry steer the side to glory in 2011.
This specific squad is the product of four years’ hard work since that famous triumph during which time he has since overseen a superb run of form with their enviable excellence and outrageous consistency powering them to a record of 48 victories, two draws and just three defeats in their 53 outings since that famous night in Auckland four years ago.
In contrast, Michael Cheika was appointed Australia coach just over a year ago in just the latest dramatic twist in the somewhat turbulent recent history of the Wallabies.
They have burned through two coaches since the last World Cup with Robbie Deans departing in the wake of their series defeat to the British & Irish Lions in 2013 and Ewen McKenzie parting company with the Australian Rugby Union a year later as off-field headlines took their toll.
But Cheika was not able to fully concentrate on reversing Australia’s fortunes after two troublesome years where losses outnumbered victories having opted to juggle his duties with the national side with his responsibilities as head coach of Super Rugby side the Waratahs.
Only at the conclusion of his side’s Super Rugby campaign in June – following their semi-final loss to eventual champions the Highlanders – was Cheika able to focus solely on the small matter of the World Cup.
As a result, Cheika is not scarred by the Wallabies’ woeful run at the hands of their fierce rivals.
Australia have won just one of their last 12 meetings dating back to New Zealand’s 20-6 victory in the semi-finals of the last World Cup. But Cheika has a much more respectable record with one victory – a 27-19 victory in the Rugby Championship – and one defeat – a 41-13 loss in the Bledisloe Cup decider.
Cheika will have little time for defeats out of his control while his players would appear to have even less interest in anything that has preceded this game with lock Dean Mumm commenting this week: “It’s a World Cup. History, past forms are irrelevant going into this game.”
In truth, you suspect the last two games will come under the microscope as part of both the Australia’s and New Zealand’s preparations.
The Wallabies’ rare success in Sydney – that snapped a 10-game winless streak against the All Blacks – will offer hope for Cheika and provide palpitations for Hansen.
The hosts dominated the breakdown and the All Blacks occasionally stuttered as they arguably attempted to avoid the dangers that awaited them in a crowded midfield by opting for width.
Many of the Australia side that secured their first victory over New Zealand for four years that day will feature again in the World Cup final, fuelled by the renewed belief that the All Blacks are far from unbeatable.
Among them will be the back-row trio of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and Pocock who proved more than a match for the Kiwi trio of Jerome Kaino, McCaw and Kieran Read who they will lock horns with again in a pivotal breakdown battle on Saturday night.
Cheika is clearly a clever man having inspired such an impressive turnaround, along with Heineken Cup success for Leinster and Super Rugby glory for the Waratahs. But suggestions he all but conceded defeat to New Zealand just a week later after their notable triumph when the sides met again in Auckland by fielding a much-changed line-up, to apparently keep the All Blacks guessing ahead of a likely World Cup meeting, are far from intelligent.
No coach would sacrifice such momentum or the chance to sow another seed of doubt into the collective mind of the world’s No.1 ranked side.
If he was looking for assurances that he had found the most powerful back-row combination he got it by benching Pocock for that return clash where the All Blacks dominated the breakdown.
While the All Blacks will no doubt work tirelessly on how to negate Pocock’s impact on the game, the Wallabies may spend just as long on how to handle referee Nigel Owens who has been handed the honour of taking charge of the final.
New Zealand were full of praise of Owen’s selection – along with much of the rest of the rugby globe such is the high regard in which he is held by many. But there may well be reason for that with the All Blacks having won their last 12 games where Owens was the referee.
Australia do not have as fond memories of the Welshman with reports stating that, when playing away from home, they have not tasted success with Owens in charge in their last six attempts.
It is just another subplot to what is sure to be a fascinating contest boasting an abundance of game-breaking talent but also the two best defensive records in the tournament.
So often we are left to just ponder seemingly impossible match-ups between the ‘best ever’ and the ‘best right now’ but in a welcome twist of fate we might just be in for such a game on Saturday night.