Tony Ward: Hunter-gatherers David Pocock and Michael Hooper give Wallabies hope
Published 31/10/2015 | 02:30
Despite the hosts not making the knockouts, despite Ireland crumbling at the quarter-final and despite the Rugby Championship Four taking over the final fortnight, this has been a hugely enjoyable World Cup. The best ever? Well, let's see how today's finale goes before offering a definitive opinion on that one.
The World Cup is, much like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. For many, 1995 and the parallel with the emergence of the Rainbow Nation under Nelson Mandela topped the lot. For me, Australia 2003 was a gem of a tournament and that has nothing to do with northern hemisphere success for the first and so far only time.
The 2015 version has had its issues, but what cannot be disputed is that the four best teams made the semi-finals with the two best teams, playing the most complete brand of winning rugby, qualifying for the final to be refereed by the best in the business in Nigel Owens.
So the stage is set with New Zealand - my tip to beat Australia in the final (how brave was that?) - poised to confirm their status as the greatest of so many great teams to don the most famous All Black garb down the years.
For Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, it represents the opportunity to bow out at the zenith of the game they have represented with such class and such dignity over such a successful period of time.
Victory over their most bitter rivals from across the Tasman - even the Poms get relegated to a distant afterthought when Wallaby and Kiwi come head to head - and they will become the first New Zealand squad to lift the Webb Ellis trophy outside their own country. They will also become the first team to retain the title.
One match won't determine the overall impact of Carter and McCaw but there could hardly be a more appropriate way for the two most influential New Zealand players in their respective positions ever to bow out.
In Hans Christian Andersen terms, this is their day and their goodbye.
But trans-Tasman rugby doesn't work like that, not when it is Michael Cheika charting the Wallaby course.
He is not even a full calendar year in the top post and already he has taken Australia to a Rugby Championship title, to a World Cup final, not to mention the little matter of Super Rugby success with the Waratahs in the lead-in to taking over the Wallaby coaching reins.
The hard edge Cheika brought to Leinster, and Heineken Cup success saw the 'lady-boy' jibe banished from the metropolis forever.
In no way is he as precious as the self-appointed 'Special One' in football, but for Jose Mourinho with round ball read Michael Cheika with oval.
Win today and they will be erecting statues in Darling Harbour and Circular Quay to their undisputed 'special one'.
So what can we expect? Well for starters, Owens will supply volumes of oxygen to the breakdown. Given that latitude plus the intensity of counter-rucking witnessed against the Pumas, the Australia back-row of Scott Fardy and, of course, Michael Hooper alongside David Pocock can wreak havoc in terms of turnover.
In modern rugby, that is a currency you simply can't buy, particularly in a game of this magnitude.
I'm loath to exaggerate the Pocock/Hooper relevance but, weighed against the central All Black cog that is still McCaw, the race to the breakdown, the intensity of that battle for possession, the use of resources (as in numbers competing at the tackle), the more economical body positions will ultimately determine the outcome.
This is the Aussie ace card and the Kiwis know it only too well. The trick for Steve Hansen and Co is in preventing it happening.
Such has been Pocock's turnover impact that another tour de force today and he has to be at the head of the line for Player of the Tournament.
Rugby has changed out of all recognition in more recent years, but in the battle for territory and points, raw possession continues to be the key factor.
The quality of it can be then be worked upon and developed into try-scoring opportunities so when you have hunter-gatherers of the Hooper/Pocock ilk then even the greatest team on the planet, arguably the best we've ever seen, could struggle to make ends meet.
Not for a minute am I suggesting the Wallabies are a one-trick pony, but in almost every other facet of the game, from set-piece to broken play in attack and defence, the reigning world champions are at least their match and better.
If ever a game and a world title hung on a specific area, it is this battle of the breakdown today. No pressure then, Nigel!
Aside from the '03 final at the end of the best tournament to date for me, the other six deciders (yes even '95) have been eminently forgettable.
This has all the ingredients to deliver a pyrotechnic show appropriate to the occasion, to the Halloween day that's in it and the Guy Fawkes time of year.
Australia have already beaten New Zealand to global cricket and netball success this year.
They go in search of a third Webb Ellis title from three in this part of the world.
For New Zealand, it is new and uncharted territory with the bulk of the pressure most definitely on the team in black.
In every unit of both teams is a mouth-watering head to head. They need little elaboration from me now.
That said, I will again mention the name McCaw, probably the greatest All Black ever, alongside Carter and Kieran Read.
These three are giants of the game with Carter set to take the bow on the greatest stage which he missed out upon four years ago.
No 8 Read has been uncharacteristically quiet in this World Cup. Could this be the day?
I'm sticking with New Zealand to squeeze home in a potential classic.