Monday 18 March 2019

Five key battles that could decide the World Cup final

Australia and New Zealand prepare for battle

Australia's wing Adam Ashley-Cooper (L) celebrates with Australia's wing Drew Mitchell (C) after scoring his third and his team's fourth try during a semi-final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between Argentina and Australia at Twickenham
Australia's wing Adam Ashley-Cooper (L) celebrates with Australia's wing Drew Mitchell (C) after scoring his third and his team's fourth try during a semi-final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between Argentina and Australia at Twickenham

Tom Rooney

Tomorrow’s World Cup decider promises to be a titanic struggle between two great collectives, but it’s the individual showdowns that could determine the fate of the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

History and the bookmakers will tell you that the All Blacks should become the first team to retain World Cup at Twickenham but no side has taken more Kiwi scalps than Australia, the most recent of which in this year’s truncated Rugby Championship, and will be fresh in the memory.

As with all great thrillers, there are subplots abound, and we’ve selected which of those could have the most significant influence on the overall narrative.

Adam-Ashley Cooper v Julian Savea

When comparing the physical dimensions of the wingers, it does not make pleasant reading for Cooper. Up against the heir of Jonah Lomu, he’s conceding three inches of height and over a stone in weight. He must call on every ounce of wisdom he’s acquired over 113 caps, if he’s to subdue a foe that enjoys greater power and pace.

Cooper is, however, well-acquainted with Savea, so he’ll offer far greater resistance than the hapless French three-quarters. Savea tends to come in from  his wing to carry hard off phase play, while the All Blacks also overload the tramlines with Dane Coles and Kieran Reed, so the Bordeaux recruit won’t be short of work.

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Australia's Israel Folau and All Blacks winger Julian Savea both make our World Cup Final combined XV

Richie McCaw v David Pocock

This one is more than just a head-to-head and extends to each back row. But, to strip it down for a moment, it’ll be fascinating to see whether McCaw or Pocock win the breakdown dual. The latter has the ability to deprive the Kiwis of quick ball, and seriously hinder the speed at which they attack.

The All Blacks may have to commit more numbers than usual and flood the tackle area to ensure this does not occur which, in turn, will limit their options in the wider channels. It all starts with McCaw, who must utilise all his cunning and brinksmanship to nullify Pocock and influence referee Nigel Ownes, though few police the ruck area better than the Welshman.

Ferocious, borderline legal clear outs should be in abundance and Owens’ interpretation will be pivotal.

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Captain Richie McCaw of the New Zealand All Blacks consoles Victor Matfield of South Africa at the end of the match during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Semi Final match between South Africa and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on October 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Matt Giteau v Conrad Smith 

Although these elder statesmen will not be in direct opposition in midfield, their rugby brains will be in fierce competition. Smith organises the All Blacks defence, while Giteau, in his role as second five-eighth behind Bernard Foley, is often Australia’s offensive general.

Whoever has the greater appreciation for the feel and pace of the contest, will make the right calls and select the more effective options. Here, mind trumps matter.

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Rugby Union - England v Australia - IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool A - Twickenham Stadium, London, England - 3/10/15 Australia's Matt Giteau scores a try Reuters / Stefan Wermuth Livepic

Aaron Smith v Will Genia

The impact of the respective scrum-halves will depend on which back row is on top. If Pocock and Hooper can disrupt Smith from providing Carter with quick, front-foot ball the All Blacks will look mortal very quickly.

If not, Smith’s unerring passing and speed of thought will facilitate his team’s irrepressible heads up attack and Australia will be sucked into a tackling vortex.

Genia, need it be said, is no slouch either, and he and Foley have engineered some of the most eye-catching rugby of the tournament. He must watch Smith like a hawk though, because one missed tackle in the wrong place, and his opposite number will show him a clean pair of heels.

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Aussies can win on luck as well as talent. Photo: Reuters

Sekope Kepu v Joe Moody

Even with teams who are not overly reliant on their set-piece, the scrum cannot be overlooked. Both sides like to play flat on the gain line so a well-laid platform at the scrum makes the creative-types’ job exceedingly more comfortable. It’s no secret that Australia’s scrum is vastly improved under Mario Ledesma and that New Zealand’s is good, but not great.

If Kepu can exert early pressure on the impressive, yet inexperienced Moody, as well as the slightly light weight Dane Coles, then an element of doubt could begin to permeate the Kiwi tight five and  Bernard Foley should be afforded the opportunity to rack up penalties and a lead.

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New Zealand's Joe Moody in action against France's Bernard le Roux. Photo: Reuters

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