Ahead of Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final we pick out four match-ups we can’t wait to see unfold at Twickenham when the Wallabies face the All Blacks.
The battle between each side’s respective first-choice goalkickers is a pretty obvious one, but how slim are the margins in Rugby World Cup finals between glory and heartache? Miniscule.
Four of the seven RWC finals have been decided by less than seven points – don’t forget that New Zealand only won 8-7 four years ago – which puts the spotlight on Bernard Foley and Dan Carter to deliver.
Foley is the concern here. Even with a nickname like ‘Iceman’ we’ve seen the Wallabies fly-half, astonishingly good in 2014, lose his nerve on plenty of occasions this year.
Carter on the other hand is, well, Dan Carter – the highest Test points scorer of all time who right now looks as though he has rediscovered his best form.
Points off the tee are vital but so are drop goals, and Carter’s snap effort against the Springboks was only his seventh in 111 Tests. The pressure is on both players to make good decision with their distribution and kicks for territory, while stepping up to the plate when it matters most when points are on offer.
David Pocock might be wearing eight on his back on Saturday but don’t be fooled, he is the Wallabies’ star fetcher (and Michael Hooper sure knows his way around a breakdown too).
Pocock has comfortably won the most turnovers so far in this World Cup with 14, five more than the rest of the field.
He’s in the form of his life and should be named World Player of the Year based on how he has dictated games single-handedly with his mastery at the breakdown.
On Saturday though he faces arguably the greatest player of all time, playing in his final, 148th Test and looking for win number 131.
Richie McCaw has been accused in some quarters of not quite playing at his best in this World Cup which just sets him up perfectly to make a series of defining plays in the final.
If Pocock can get on top and get the Wallabies out of jail now and again, then he will make one hell of an impact and as we saw against England, when he swung the game Australia’s way. McCaw is unlikely though to go out with a whimper.
Australia’s scrum was the story of the competition through the group stages and rightly hailed as potent weapon after humiliating England, but tough run-ins with WP Nel of Scotland and then Argentina’s Ramiro Herrera saw Scott Sio and James Slipper cough up multiple penalties on the loosehead side.
That will have given Owen Franks plenty of encouragement this week as he went over the tape ahead of Saturday.
Sio has been one of the most improved props on the planet this year and would deserve to start if he’s recovered from his elbow injury.
The All Blacks have been waiting on the fitness of their own loosehead after Wyatt Crockett missed the semi-final against South Africa.
Considerably tall for a prop at 193cm, Crockett’s technique was called out earlier this year in Super Rugby when he was accused of scrummaging on the angle repeatedly to win penalties. Expect Nigel Owens to be straight on that having done his homework.
Joe Moody, Crockett’s Crusaders team-mate, acquitted himself well enough against the Boks and will be more than ready to answer the call.
Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell have racked up 21 tries between them at this World Cup, with Savea being the top scorer in the competition with eight.
All four players have shown their nose for the try line is as sharp as ever, but in the case of the Wallabies especially sometimes it’s just been a case of holding your position out wide, waiting patiently for the ball to come to you and then doing your job.
Keeping a cool head and ticking off those boxes in a World Cup final is another matter. Each player will have an instinct to rush off his wing and get to the ball quicker – but stay wide and the opposition will always panic in defence.
Savea was a wrecking ball against France but didn’t get into the game enough last Saturday. Milner-Skudder has come from nowhere to become a star on the wing for the All Blacks, but the Wallabies will still look to test him under the high ball, just as South Africa did before Steve Hansen moved Ben Smith over to the wing.
Ashley-Cooper and Mitchell, savvy veterans both now, have been clinical. All four players will be expected to score when the ball comes their way in space, but they have to hold their nerve with the stakes being so high.
Stephen Donald’s key penalty in the final four years ago just shows us how important a replacement can turn out to be in the big game.
Australia’s impact players in terms of backs are likely to be Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale, meaning the Wallabies won’t be short of creativity, while Tatafu Polota-Nau, Dean Mumm and Ben McCalman can all provide plenty of thrust upfront.
New Zealand have already benefited from the impact of Sonny Bill Williams off the bench as we saw in the semi-final. Williams’ offloading game was on point in the wet last Saturday.
Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina, Luke Romano, Sam Cane are all high-class forwards at Steve Hansen’s disposal and we’ve already seen how flexible Beauden Barrett can be after his try-scoring cameo against the Springboks.
Both coaches will be relying on their replacements to come off the bench and make a key play. Plus, just think how many of these players would into the starting XVs of other countries.