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Alan Quinlan: Australians can upset champions in back-row battle


David Pocock has been in outstanding form for Australia and will have a key role to play against the All Blacks today

David Pocock has been in outstanding form for Australia and will have a key role to play against the All Blacks today

David Pocock has been in outstanding form for Australia and will have a key role to play against the All Blacks today

I'm torn. Most of the evidence points to a New Zealand win and a second World Cup in a row, but I have a sneaky feeling that Australia's ability to pull a score out of nowhere could see them to victory today.

We have become conditioned to believe that rugby is a game of structures, game-plans and exact systems and New Zealand are the masters of that. But it has been the off-the-cuff Australians that have impressed me most at this tournament.

Now, the All Blacks are well capable of deviating from their plans and scoring individual tries, while Australia have added a certain amount of stability to their once-weak set-piece, but something tells me the Aussies could edge the battle between methodology and mayhem.

There is also the enormous sideshow there surrounding the retirement of some New Zealand's rugby legends.

This evening will see the end of an All Black era with Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma'a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and Conrad Smith all likely to play their last game for New Zealand. A lot of emotion and talk goes into occasions like that and ahead of a game of this magnitude, that is not ideal.


But I reckon the thoughts of McCaw finishing up is the biggest fear for All Black fans. The man is a colossus, an absolute beast of the game, perhaps the best there ever was. With 147 caps - 109 of those as captain - and a three-times World Player of the Year, it is unthinkable that his last game as captain of the All Blacks, against Australia in a World Cup final, could not end in victory.

Along with Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino, McCaw faces an enormous test against this Australian back-row. In his first season as coach Michael Cheika has punted on playing two natural No 7s in David Pocock and Michael Hooper. The blend produced has been a real thing of beauty.

Two serious knee injuries kept Pocock out of the Australian team for the last two seasons, so it was only when the great rivals met earlier this summer in the Rugby Championship that they could be paired together for the first time.

New Zealand immediately avenged that defeat the following week, but the Aussie pair were split up for that trip to Eden Park. This afternoon they renew acquaintances once more.

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Despite starting just four games together, Hooper and Pocock have really gelled well and they are probably two of the most influential guys playing the game at the moment. They can make or break matches because the get so many turnovers - Pocock has effected 14 turnovers in his four games at the tournament already.

They work great as a pairing: Hooper will often make the tackle, and with Pocock hovering behind him, he is in on the ball quick as lightning, with a low body position.

Compliments to Cheika that he has managed to get the balance right with two natural No 7s. They both carry well which is a bonus, and alongside them Scott Fardy can jump in the lineout and makes the hard yards, which has helped the partnership bed in too.

Coming into the competition I had wondered if this was one tournament too many for McCaw, but he has blown me away again in the last few weeks with his ability to still have an impact at this level.

A bit like Brian O'Driscoll had to, McCaw has changed his game up a bit in recent years. He is not as lightning quick as he used to be, but when he started out first he was the king of the breakdown. He was unbelievably quick, strong over the ball and made countless turnovers.

And he was rarely penalised because he was that good. There have been times over the years where people have questioned how he has been refereed, whether he steps into the side of a ruck, if he was offside or lying on the ball, but in my opinion he is an incredibly disciplined player. He was brilliant at pushing the boundaries just far enough and the manner in which he dealt politely with referees meant the 50-50 decisions often went his way.

A lesser player would have let their standards fall off in the last couple of seasons, but he is such an intelligent rugby player that he has adapted. He runs really clever lines, his link-play is outstanding and you often see him popping up as the support runner on the shoulder as a result. You still cannot fault him.

At this stage he must be shattered throughout his body from all the injuries, bangs and knocks, but he was still smashing tackles and was still setting the standards of physicality needed.

The pairing of Hooper and Pocock is a new challenge for him, but McCaw is well used to facing Pocock. Since the Brumbies man played his first game against New Zealand back in 2009 McCaw has played in 22 of the 23 games between the sides and has only lost three times to Australia in that period. Since Hooper came on the scene in 2012, the loss in August is the only time he's been bettered.

On the field he is a brilliant player and a natural leader, but off it he is a total gentleman. He's a normal, down-to-earth guy, a real humble individual. He is generous with his time to everyone and is a real mannerly person. I really hope his career finishes up on the right note it deserves.


But that feeling of doubt won't go away from me, and I'm probably wrong. I thought from the start that if Australia could get their scrum and lineout in order they were capable of winning this tournament. Their scrum is now a weapon thanks to Mario Ledesma's work, Stephen Moore has their lineout firing again and Cheika has injected a real belief into his squad.

They have not beaten New Zealand consistently since the late 1990s, but this Australia team has a recent victory over the All Blacks to recall and that could be crucial. There is a hard edge there in this Australia team now. Cheika's teams have always brought that to the field. With such traditional rivals playing in the biggest game of rugby in the world there is sure to be fireworks. There is a mutual respect there, but there is also quite a bit of history that will mean escalated tension.

With the golden generation set to retire maybe that can force New Zealand to produce one more massive performance.

I'd say they will look to outmuscle Australia from the off like they did against France.

It sounds simple, and my head tells me New Zealand will probably win.

But still, I think with Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell back in this Australia team, and with Israel Folau and Bernard Foley in form, Australia could pull the match-winning score out of the hat after a mighty physical battle.

One penalty either way could change the way this game goes. If Hooper or Pocock can get their hands on some ball in New Zealand territory, it could be the winning of the game.

It promises to be an epic battle.

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