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Pressure on men in black to create towering legacy

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New Zealand's head coach Steve Hansen

New Zealand's head coach Steve Hansen

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Welcome to the pressure cooker. Four years ago, the All Blacks tripped over the line at their own World Cup and today, having lost just three times since, they get the chance to win the Webb Ellis Cup on their own terms.

In their way is a hastily-assembled Australia side capable of getting under their skin. World Cup finals are all about pressure. How you apply it, how you deal with it, whether you can exploit it.

Since New Zealand scored three tries against France in the first final back in 1987, nobody has matched that tally. Australia scored more points in their 1999 win over Les Bleus but only managed to cross the line twice and those are the only finals in which a team has managed more than one try.

Indeed, on two occasions, the showpiece for the game has not been graced by a try at all; South Africa have won the title twice without ever touching down in the final.

These are taut affairs by their nature. The best players creak under the strain of what's at stake as we saw at Eden Park when the best team in the world needed some questionable refereeing from Craig Joubert to see their way past France.

"The only thing you take out of being in a final before is you know how deep you're going to have to dig to get across the line," Richie McCaw, who will enter the history books as the first captain to retain the trophy if New Zealand win, said this week.

"It comes down to knowing one or two moments you have to win are going to make the difference. Exactly that. That's the lesson taken out of World Cups gone by - and our experience of four years ago.

"But you look at all the teams who've won and they've had to dig pretty deep and that's what we know we're going to have to do this week. It's not actually about doing anything magical, it's about doing your job when it counts. That's what makes the team function."

Surpassed

New Zealand will hope that the four years of work they have put into reaching this point serves them well at Twickenham but, if they are surpassed by Michael Cheika's Wallabies, it will undoubtedly infuriate and mystify them in equal measure.

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The former Leinster coach only took over as coach of a disgraced national team 53 weeks ago, but he has pulled together all of his considerable playing resources and moulded them into a team capable of topping the toughest pool at this World Cup and reaching the final.

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand head coach, has steadily introduced new blood to complement his experienced core of players and each step has been about winning this tournament. Cheika has changed laws and convinced players like Kane Douglas and Dean Mumm to return home in order to have his strongest hand at play.

While New Zealand are playing with the weight of a nation on their shoulders, Australia are all about regaining their share of a crowded sporting market. Nobody back home expected them to win this tournament and Cheika was keen to establish the parameters around where the burden of the occasion lies.

"People like to talk about the whole pressure thing, you know, but for me; we love playing the game," he said. "If the game was amateur still, everyone would still be playing. There may not be as many journalists at this press conference, but everyone would still be playing because we love the game.

"The only time you feel pressure is if you haven't prepared as best as you possibly can. Let's prepare as best we can, go out there and do our best. I've said it before many times, the cards will fall where they fall."

Yesterday, a picture taken of Australia scrum-coach Mario Ledesma, during their captain's run, revealed a set of tactics written on the back of a piece of paper that set out the Wallabies' plans to "rattle" Kieran Read at kick-offs and "expose" wingers Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder.

Whether it was a gaffe or a double-bluff, news of the leak will undoubtedly have reached Hansen last night and just adds to the spice of this local rivalry played out on a global stage.

The document also talks about "owning the air space", suggesting that Will Genia and Bernard Foley might look to the skies a lot more than he has done to date and look to replicate the pressure South Africa were able to apply on the All Blacks in the semi-final. Key to that will be their back-row trio of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and David Pocock whose ears must be red-hot after they dominated the build-up all week.

When Cheika's men beat New Zealand in Sydney last August, it was their No 8 in particular who got under the All Blacks' skin and while they have refused to acknowledge his threat in public, there is little doubt that the world champions will have a plan to negate Pocock's influence.

If he can disrupt the Kiwi flow, then it will reduce their ability to attack out wide. If he can turn over good possession, then he will force them on to the back foot.

For all the talk about the loose forwards, and New Zealand's trio of Jerome Kaino, McCaw and Read are pretty good themselves, Hansen reckons it will be the work done closer to the coalface that will have the most bearing.

"It should be a great contest, but back-rows can only operate if your front five do the job," the All Black coach said. "Rugby hasn't changed as long as most of us have been breathing, the game is won up in the tight five and if they go forward, your loosies go forward and your backs go forward. So the team that does that tomorrow will probably have the easier ride."

So, for all the attacking gifts of Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Julian Savea on one side and Matt Giteau, Folau and Drew Mitchell on the other, it looks like being the nuts and bolts that decide the affair.

And it appears like the world champions hold the edge in that department despite the return to fitness of loosehead prop Scott Sio who is so important to the Australian scrum.

One man who has a huge role to play is Douglas who, had he stuck to his initial plan, would be lining out for Leinster against Treviso tomorrow.

His decision to return home has been vindicated and his role in today's game cannot be understated. Having worked hard to trim down since leaving Ireland, he has topped his team's tackle count at the tournament and his ability to hit as many attacking rucks as possible will be key to stopping McCaw's influence on Australia's ball. Against Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, Douglas and Rob Simmons have a big job on their hands in ensuring Australia's possession is quick and clean and if they can gain parity it will go a long way.

New Zealand, however, have closed out more big games over the course of the last four years than their opponents, while the impending exit of a host of all-time greats like McCaw, Nonu, Conrad Smith, Carter and Keven Mealamu from the international stage should not be discounted as a driving force.

Trophies

Yet, Australia have assembled a team with plenty of winning experience between them, with the Reds and Waratahs having won Super Rugby titles in recent seasons and Giteau and Mitchell used to claiming trophies at Toulon.

Giteau is their only survivor from their last final appearance in 2003 and even then his was a brief appearance off the bench, but their ability to make light of conventional wisdom about experience and four-year cycles appears to negate the importance of all that.

Nigel Owens will have a big role to play and history shows that New Zealand generally enjoy the better of the games in which the Welsh referee is in charge.

With the sun set to shine in south-west London, the combination of good conditions and a positive referee should guarantee an expansive approach from both teams, yet their defensive records indicate they will not be easily broken down.

"Tradition is a great thing as long as it doesn't get in the way of progress," was Hansen's take on the legacy of low-scoring finals. "Let's hope we get a bit of progress. You got two sides who are like-minded, they want to play footy.

"The pressure will be on both teams, there is no doubt about that, but I don't think it will inhabit them. Time has shown us that the Australian team will play to their strengths and so will we. Given the conditions are alight we should see some running rugby.

"Whether that results in a lot of tries depends on the defences. We won't be inhibited by the occasion. The group is in a good place."

Balance

The All Blacks are undoubtedly the best, most consistent team in the world and on the balance of the last four years' work they deserve to take the title again.

But, as they've found out at countless World Cups, deserve has got nothing to do with it. This trophy must be earned over the course of seven weeks and by producing the goods on final day.

They have been described as the best team in history and a win today would confirm that status as they'll become the only team to win two World Cups in a row.

Australia will look to create doubt through pressure, but McCaw and his team will hope that all of their collective experience can see them take their opportunities and limit the Australians.

If they can handle the occasion and perform to their best, nobody can match them.

Verdict: New Zealand


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