The ultimate trans-Tasman showdown awaits
The epic sporting rivalry between Australia and New Zealand seemingly reached its zenith in March when the neighbouring nations met in the Cricket World Cup final, but it will lift to another level this week at Twickenham with the Wallabies and All Blacks contesting the Rugby World Cup decider for the first time.
The All Blacks will go in as overwhelming favourites, but the Wallabies have a strong World Cup history against the current champs. The RWC is the big one for most New Zealanders, and after savage beatings in the Rugby League, Cricket and Netball World Cups over the past couple of years, Kiwis will be hell-bent on their most famous sporting export meting out some on-field retribution.
Wallabies subdue plucky Pumas
Australia had to work hard for a 27-15 semi-final victory, but they ultimately deserved their four-tries-to-none success. Argentina gifted Wallabies lock Rob Simmons an intercept try in the second minute – after Drew Mitchell almost snaffled one in the opening 60 seconds – and Adam Ashley-Cooper bagged the first of his three tries in the 10th minute.
Despite a lack of patience, some dusty option-taking and the unlucky yellow-carding of lock Tomas Lavanini, the Pumas refused to roll over. Nicolas Sanchez’s radar-like goalkicking kept the underdogs within reach and their exciting counterattack threatened to bring Australia undone.
The match was precariously poised at 22-15 for 18 minutes of the second half, before a sizzling break by Drew Mitchell led to Ashley-Cooper’s hat-trick in the 72nd minute, effectively clinching the final berth.
The Golden Wall, Part II
The semi-final was a far more open, end-to-end contest, but Australia reprised the defensive effort that marked their memorable defeat of Wales to keep Argentina try-less. The Pumas have proved among the most dangerous attacking teams of the tournament – scoring more tries than any side bar the All Blacks – and keeping their line intact was a monumental performance by the Wallabies.
Their line speed was magnificent, David Pocock’s work at the breakdown to force four turnovers (among a 10-5 turnovers won count in favour of Australia) was spectacular, while Bernard Foley saved two certain tries in the first half with scything cover defence. The Wallabies missed too many tackles in broken play (33 to Argentina’s 28 overall), but they showed the sort of desperation and aggression that will be imperative against a relentless All Blacks outfit next week.
Concerns for Cheika
His team’s backline hummed and their defence was heroic, but coach Michael Cheika has some work to do and some decisions to make ahead of the final.
Israel Folau is clearly still struggling with an ankle injury, producing a largely pedestrian display in the semi. There must be a temptation to slot in-form Kurtley Beale – who made a big impact off the bench after replacing Matt Giteau early in the second half – into the No.15 jumper rather than take an underdone Folau into such a huge match.
The Wallabies’ scrum – which has improved drastically – also took a buffeting from the powerful Pumas, losing two of their own scrums and conceding four scrum penalties, among a worrying 12-6 penalty against them overall.
Pumas big movers of 2015
The Pumas have captured the hearts of a nation with their immense progress this year. Two gallant losses to the All Blacks and a watershed victory over the Springboks preceded their brilliant march to the semis, where they were courageous in defeat.
Although their progression to the last four was a surprise, Argentina unequivocally proved they belong in that company. With an Argentine team set to join the Super Rugby competition, the code is on a massive upward trajectory in the South American nation.
Meanwhile, legendary footballer Diego Maradona jumped on the Pumas’ bandwagon with gusto and was at his patriotic best again at Twickenham.
Diego Maradona Couldn’t Care Less About Argentina Losing to Australia. He’s On it! https://t.co/MdlO4T2vf4
— talkingbaws (@talkingbaws) October 25, 2015
All Blacks graft out gripping win
New Zealand’s 20-18 eclipse of South Africa was in direct contrast to their scintillating quarter-final destruction of France, but it demonstrated the All Blacks’ championship qualities in equal measure.
Despite scoring the opening try after just five minutes through Jerome Kaino, they were ill-disciplined and bustled by the physical Boks during the opening half, trailing 12-7 at the break.
But a well-executed try – finished off by Beauden Barrett – pushed the defending champs out to a tenuous lead, and they kept their cool during a nerve-jangling final quarter to close out the win.
Injury poser for Hansen
An injury cloud over in-form winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, who left the field with a calf injury for the second straight match after making a big impact in both knockout wins, presents a potential headache for Steve Hansen.
In both games, the versatile Barrett came at fullback and No.15 Ben Smith – man-of-the-match against South Africa – shuffled out to the wing. But for all Barrett’s game-breaking qualities, starting the mercurial Smith out wide (if Milner-Skudder is ruled out) would negate one of the All Blacks’ great strengths. That would also require another backline utility to join the bench – probably Colin Slade.
Picking Waisake Naholo would also be seen as something of a gamble, given his leg problems and patchy pool form. Sonny Bill Williams, Malakai Fekitoa and Slade are other possible wing options, but none of the trio are specialists by any measure.
Another stumbling block is the facial injury suffered by Smith in the semi, although it’s unlikely to rule him out of the decider at this stage. Hansen has stated that he expects everyone to be fit and available for the final, although whether that includes prop Wyatt Crockett, who missed the semi, remains unclear.
Ben Smith is so bloody important to this team it’s not funny. Can’t say enough about the guy.
— NZ Rugby/Live scores (@NZRugbyScores) October 24, 2015
Laughable McCaw elbowing claims quashed
Sanity has prevailed and All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was not cited for what was nothing more than an accidental collision with South African forward Francois Louw. The judicial process at this World Cup has been unpredictable to say the least, but the panel got this one right.
Trigger-happy yellow card calls a blight on tournament
Way too many teams have been hamstrung by dodgy yellow cards dished out during the World Cup – most notably Scotland in their quarter-final loss to Australia – and the trend continued again in the semi-finals.
Jerome Kaino spent 10 minutes on the sidelines for alleged ‘cynical’ play in a farcical decision that could have proved incredibly costly for the All Blacks.
The Wallabies again benefitted from more farcical use of the yellow card system, marching Tomas Lavanini for not wrapping his arms while making a tackle around Israel Folau’s legs. It seems almost inevitable that a dubious sin-binning will be a major talking point in the aftermath of the final.
The friendship Cup
The sportsmanship on display in this tournament has been outstanding, with spite kept at a minimum and guards of honour a regular post-match feature. Sonny Bill Williams added to the tone of the tournament when he consoled devastated South African centre Jesse Kriel after Saturday’s gripping semi-final, attracting plaudits from around the world.
2 great teams battled it out tonight, In my eyes we are all winners. pic.twitter.com/hAkb1g27zH
— Sonny Bill Williams (@SonnyBWilliams) October 24, 2015
— Greg Norman (@SharkGregNorman) October 24, 2015
The much-maligned SBW, whose inclusion in the All Blacks side was roundly criticised after some underwhelming pre-tournament form (and really, who else would they have picked – Ryan Crotty? Tom Taylor?), but he was been one of the undeniable stars of RWC 2015. Williams made a big impact again off the bench in the semi-final, and his tackle-busting runs and peerless offloading ability shape as a big X-factor in the final.
RUGBY WORLD CUP SEMI-FINAL RESULTS
New Zealand 20 d. South Africa 18
Australia 27 d. Argentina 15
3rd v 4th Playoff: South Africa v Argentina, 6am (AEDT), Saturday, October 31 at Olympic Stadium, London
World Cup Final: New Zealand v Australia, 3am (AEDT), Sunday, November 1 at Twickenham, London