Steve Hansen (Gallo Images)
The two best teams in the tournament. Nos. 1 and 2 in the world.
Archrivals. Neighbours. Records at stake.
The Rugby World Cup may just have its
At the end of a tournament dominated by the
southern hemisphere, New Zealand and Australia have proved the most durable and
incisive over the six weeks, and the trans-Tasman rivals head to Twickenham on
Saturday bidding to win rugby's grandest prize for a record third time.
It's the fourth time they have each reached
the final but they have never met there, adding to the sense of occasion for
one of the biggest events in sports.
Rugby World Cup finals have tended to be
tight, tense games - the 2011 final finished 8-7 and two of the previous four
didn't contain a try - but this showpiece promises to be different, with both
sides preferring an expansive game and the weather in London forecast to be dry
and an unseasonal 20 degrees.
The All Blacks have proved they can counter
any style, any weather condition, and almost every opponent by losing just
three of their 53 games since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup four years ago on home
They are in the conversation for the best team in the professional era
(since 1996) and rightly start as favourites, as they seek to become the first
team to retain the title, and win the World Cup abroad for the first time.
There've been none of the nerves, stress
and injury problems that accompanied the team and its rugby-mad public in 2011,
when they ended a cavernous 24-year wait for the cup.
The All Blacks'
performances were professional but inconsistent - by their high standards - in
the pool stage, but they've mixed flair and resilience to beat France (62-13)
and South Africa (20-18) in the knockout stage, and their 36 tries is easily a
Coach has his best players
fit, his team is on a World Cup-record 13-match winning run, and how New
Zealand would love to give the perfect send-off to captain Richie McCaw,
flyhalf Dan Carter, hooker Keven Mealamu, centres Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu,
and injured prop Tony Woodcock - five of them Test centurions who are all
likely to be playing their last matches in the All Black jersey.
It is that experience that Hansen believes
will be a telling factor.
"When you have got experience and that
experience is in good form," Hansen says, "that is a massive
"Every game is like a final" is
an increasingly used phrase in sports, but it holds true for Australia in this
tournament. Drawn in the toughest ever World Cup pool, the Wallabies have been
playing knockout rugby since meeting - and beating - England and Wales in their
final two group games. They scraped past Scotland in the quarter-finals,
ultimately because of a refereeing error, and picked off Argentina in the semis
The final will be the Wallabies' fifth
straight match at Twickenham and the neutrals may just be on their side, hoping
for a close match, with New Zealand having only lost one of the last 12
meetings with their neighbours.
That, however, came in the deciding match
of the Rugby Championship in August, and the 27-19 win in Sydney will give the
Wallabies confidence that the All Blacks juggernaut can be stopped.
It was in that match that Australia played
openside flanks David Pocock and Michael Hooper together for the first time,
and they caused carnage at the breakdown, as they have ever since. It is this
area where the Wallabies will likely have a distinct edge on Saturday. Pocock,
playing at No. 8, is averaging 3.5 turnovers a game in the tournament.
This time last year, Michael Cheika had
just been hired as coach of the Wallabies and they went on to lose three of
their four November Tests in Europe. The transformation in 12 months has been
incredible, to the point where they are 80 minutes from landing a third World
Cup title on British soil - after 1991 and 1999.
They have 23 All Blacks - including
arguably the game's greatest ever player in McCaw - and a wily coach standing
in their way.
It couldn't be a bigger test, in every
meaning of the word.