As we approach the grand finale of what has been a memorable Rugby World Cup, Expert Witness joined by former All Blacks fly-half Nick Evans.
It seems strange that in eight tournaments, the giants of the Rugby World Cup, Australia and New Zealand have never before met in a final.
They have almost identical records: three finals and two wins apiece. Is this the match that decides the ultimate heavyweight in the competition?
Certainly it’s all to play for and former New Zeland playmaker Evans believes we are set for a thriller.
The World Cup that keeps on giving
"This has truly been the competition that closed the gap between the Tier One and Tier Two nations," said Evans.
"We’ve identified all of the reasons in previous Expert Witness columns and there’s definitely a bridge that’s been built between the top flight and emerging nations.
"The challenge for World Rugby now is how these experiences can be segued into feeder tournaments, possibly even with promotion and relegation, a real meritocracy from here on in.
"Already Georgia, with their monstrous pack, have been nipping at the heels of Italy. Samoa showed their skill in almost taking Scotland out, and I think we’ve all run out of words for the exploits of Japan's Brave Blossoms.
"Elsewhere, people have remarked on the poor fortunes of the Home Nations during the event, but I see a leveling of the playing field, with a resurgent Scotland, a changed England and perhaps maybe a declining Ireland, all factors that should serve to make the Six Nations very competitive.
"I am also looking forward to the Bronze Medal game. An emerging Argentina against a very good Springbok side is a real rugby feast. It will be a lot closer than you might think, especially if Argentina control where they run from and gain territory before using their outside backs. I know it’s not the main event but it will be a fire-cracker of a game," he noted.
Looking ahead to the final, Australia and New Zealand should know each other pretty well by now but Evans believes Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika has really transformed the way the Australians play and approach their game:
"Cheika was determined, from day one, to have a playmaker in the 12 channel, an Aaron Mauger or Mike Catt type figure who could distribute, kick and run a back line," noted Evans.
"He grasped the bull by the horns and the result was the return of Matt Giteau, a cap centurion of the highest calibre. Giteau is absolutely key running a lot of the layered attacking systems Australia employ and everything good they do stems from his vision.
"Cheika wanted to play in a specific way, based upon lightening ruck ball, the backs using many angle changes and lots of pull outs to create holes back inside to deliver devastating out-to-in passes, the hardest pass to defend in the game.
"If you study the wave of support at pace for the Bernard Foley try against England, which resulted in that out-to-in pass, the key was playing it off fast breakdown ball. Indeed, Australia tried the same move off slow ball in the second half of that same game and got clattered because the space had been closed down by England slowing the ruck ball before the move," explained Evans.
Speed at the Breakdown
Indeed, everyone has discussed the key to any form of winning rugby at the tournament has been the reliance on quick breakdown ball. Evans is quick to explain how fine the margins are at the highest levels:
"The back row and forwards slowing the ball down is an art form," he quipped.
"Consider this, an average rugby forward runs 100m in around 12 seconds. That’s 8.3m per second. Logically, if you slow the ball down by half a second, you are removing almost four metres of advantage and space from your opponents. Get them out of sync, get them rooted to the back foot rather than walking forward, that’s what makes the marginal differences.
"It doesn’t take turnover after turnover, more so it’s about chipping and niggling away and playing on the absolute limit of the laws. David Pocock and Michael Hopper are masters of that but Richie McCaw is the undisputed heavyweight of that contact area," laughed Evans.
"In that back row battle, which will be key, we see a huge contrast in style; Australia are precision players who attack the ball on the deck better than any side around. New Zealand have a more traditionally balanced back row, with Kaino and McCaw doing the grunt, leaving Kieran Read in a maverick role to utilise his handling and attacking skills.
"I mentioned Giteau early on and his distribution in the centres; make no mistake, the All Blacks will use both Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Kieran in that role, which gives them a lot of options.
The Spine of the Team
Many sages often say that the core of the team is found within the back row and half-backs, the players that probably make as many decisions as any on the pitch. Evans believes that both teams have absolute world-class performers in all five positions and that the individual battles will be key:
"We’ve discussed the loose forwards already but in the half back combinations Aaron Smith, Will Genia, Dan Carter and Bernard Foley have all be exceptional in the tournament. Smith and Genia are contrasting; Will often plays almost as a second fly-half making plays and kicking well from the base.
"He gives the opposition back-row a lot of problems because there’s so much variety in his play. Smith is slightly different; his skill is all about forward momentum and speed of pass. He’s lighting quick, can break and has an ability to keep the forwards and backs moving at pace,"observed Evans.
"Bernard Foley is much improved. I’m sure Ma’a will want to run down his channel to try and find some ‘road-kill’ but Foley is ice cold in his head and has great pace and steps. The kicking battle will be one of equality, but where I do believe we have the biggest advantage is in the rugby intellect that’s Dan Carter.
"The semi-final v South Africa was close, far too close. Yet the most telling and devastating play was that 40m drop-goal from Dan. He knew South Africa were building their morale through defence. He could see momentum forming in front of him. It was crucial to deliver a killer blow right at that moment and he did.
"I see a calm about Daniel that has become very evident in the last few games. He is confident; he has experienced so many situations that he’s the reference points and skills to deliver a winning performance and he does it time and time again," said an admiring Evans.
A game of fine margins
"This game will be close. The sporting cultures of both sides are immense, but there’s a slight difference. Australia see ‘sport’ as defining a large part of their being. They’d back themselves to beat anyone in any game or sport going, and I love their competitiveness, which always has the right spirit interwoven. But rugby is a poor relation to the other big three sports; however, that won’t make a jot of difference to the support and self-belief that characterises all Australians.
"On the other hand, New Zealand see ‘rugby’ as defining their being. It is the religion of the country, part of our national identity and these guys will know the mantle they have to hold. Hell, when we lost in 2007 it was no co-incidence there was a General Election a few months later and each party had a clear manifesto on rugby in the country," laughed the Harlequin.
"I believe this one will go down to the wire. I’ve discussed this with Harlequins new arrival James Horwill at length and we still only see the finest of margins; obviously he says Australia and I say New Zealand though, but it’s going to be five, maybe eight points either way."
The Cup of the World
"When I reflect back on the two months of activity, and then I compare it to RWC2011, I think there’s one fundamental difference. New Zealand’s tournament, for many reasons such as scheduling, the absolute need to win by the All Blacks after years of failure, the hysteria of the nation over hosting the tournament, meant the competition, whilst incredible, was a celebration of both rugby and All Black and New Zealand culture. In the nicest and most constructive way was it was Kiwi-centric but it was incredible and no country, bar South Africa, can show that level of passion and understanding of the game," observed Evans.
"RWC2015 has been the externalized tournament; the competition that built upon 2011 and took the game global, with brilliant organisation, marketing and huge buy-in from the local population, whose enthusiasm – to their credit – has never waned, despite the poor fortunes of the Home Unions," explained Evans.
"It’s been a credit to World Rugby, England, and the RFU.
"I said earlier about building on the good work of the Tier Two nations; let’s unpack that for one minute. The tournament has given the sport breathtaking momentum. How we capture that, continue it and build upon the amazing work of all concerned is a huge challenge, but importantly, it’s a key opportunity and one I hope continues with the advances we’ve made," said Evans.
"In closing, I wish both sides the best for Saturday. All of those 46 guys carry so much hope, responsibility and expectation on their shoulders it’s untrue. It’ll be close, and whilst of course I want my country to win, rugby has truly been the winner in the last two months and that’s the most important thing of all."
Once again, we thank Nick for his time and Expert Witness will be back next week with our wrap edition of a monumental and dramatic 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Nick Evans is a gifted fly-half, gaining 16 caps for the All Blacks, including playing in the 2007 RWC, before moving to England to become a stalwart of Harlequins. His career has been littered with silverware and he is regarded as amongst the most dangerous outside halves in rugby. Throughout the Rugby World Cup Nick has remained active as a host of the Fuller’s London Pride Clubhouse Events.
Nick Evans spoke to James While.
Expert Witness is brought to you by ecoPayz
ecoPayz, global payments, safe and easy.