WORLD CUP FINAL – New Zealand v Australia: 3.00am (AEDT), Sunday, November 1 at Twickenham, London
The storyline: The All Blacks and Wallabies come together in a World Cup final for the first time in arguably the biggest trans-Tasman sporting contest of all time, with both nations vying to become the first to hoist the Webb Ellis Trophy for the third occasion.
Form guide: In stark contrast with their blistering quarter-final rout of France, New Zealand were forced to graft their way to a 20-18 win over South Africa in the semi. The All Blacks scored a try in each half and kept their own line intact, but they took a buffeting in the penalty count before narrowly hanging on for a deserved victory. Fullback Ben Smith was man-of-the-match, while Dan Carter’s cool head was cruical.
The Wallabies did not concede a try (for the third time in the tournament), but their poor discipline – and an outmuscled scrum – also kept Argentina in the contest, before pushing out to a 29-15 win. Adam Ashley-Cooper bagged a hat-trick in what was an open, end-to-end encounter, but the mercurial David Pocock and flyhalf Bernard Foley were the real stars.
The selection table: Both sides are expected to be at relatively full-strength, with Scott Sio set to return for James Slipper in the Wallabies’ front-row, which should shore up their scrum troubles of last week. Israel Folau will be named despite still struggling with an ankle problem.
All Blacks wing sensation Nehe Milner-Skudder should be fit to take his place after leaving the field midway through each of the last two matches, but it is unclear yet as to whether prop Wyatt Crockett will return from injury for Joe Moody.
The match-ups: David Pocock v Kieran Read – The contrast in the No.8s’ form lines could not be starker. Pocock can lay claim to being the best player in the world at present, while Read has been disturbingly out of sorts, producing a string of butter-fingered displays at the World Cup. Pocock’s work at the breakdown has been staggering, pilfering four turnovers against the Pumas.
Michael Hooper v Richie McCaw – The retiring All Blacks legend will leave it all out on the Twickenham pitch as he attempts to combat the impact of Pocock, while in-form Hooper needs to provide quality back-up to the pack leader.
Bernard Foley v Dan Carter – Foley has well and truly cemented the No.10 jumper with a string of dazzling, clutch displays at the World Cup. But Carter has also been in sensational touch and carved Australia up at Eden Park less than three months ago.
Israel Folau v Ben Smith – Smith has snared the world’s best No.15 mantle with a magnificent tournament on the back of his starring role in the Highlanders’ Super XV triumph. The Wallabies desperately need Folau back to somewhere near his best, with Kurtley Beale a strong fullback option off the bench.
The history: New Zealand leads the all-time match tally with 105 wins to Australia’s 42, with seven Tests drawn. Australia has won two of the three World Cup meetings between the archrivals, which were all semi-finals.
The last time they met: The Wallabies pulled off a 27-19 upset in Sydney earlier this year, which the All Blacks atoned for with a 41-13 rout in Auckland a week later. But there are 12 starting line-up survivors from Australia’s ANZ Stadium victory, while only eight players from the run-on side at Eden Park will take the field for the Wallabies this weekend.
The stat: Australia have won just one of their last 12 against New Zealand.
Watch out Australia: The All Blacks’ dynamic backline needs to be reined in, with Ma’a Nonu, Ben Smith, Julian Savea and Milner-Skudder set to run riot if given enough space. It doesn’t get any less daunting for the defence when their bench weapons are injected, with Sonny Bill Williams and Beauden Barrett both in ominous touch.
Watch out New Zealand: Australia proved in Sydney that the All Blacks can be bustled at the breakdown, which South Africa reiterated in the semi-final. The Wallabies’ line-speed and tenacity in chasing turnovers could rattle the favourites and prevent them from building any momentum. It’s up to McCaw, Read and Jerome Kaino to match the ferocity of Pocock, Hooper and Fardy.
The verdict: The All Blacks are pronounced favourites, but this is destined to go down to wire. Five of the seven World Cup finals have been decided by nine points or less, all featuring two tries or less, while two of them went into extra-time. A 100-minute classic would not surprise, with a crucial error or lapse in discipline set to decide the final. New Zealand’s backline superiority gives them a slight edge, but Australia will be enjoying their underdog status and won’t be lacking in confidence at Twickenham. New Zealand by 3