Preview: Australia v New Zealand

12th Sep 2008, 14:44

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Pivotal: Matt Giteau and Dan Carter head to head

Pivotal: Matt Giteau and Dan Carter head to head

So we got our final after all. This Tri-Nations has been full of thrills and ups and downs, but it's been dashed hard to maintain interest all the way through.

So we got our final after all. This Tri-Nations has been full of thrills and ups and downs, but it's been dashed hard to maintain interest all the way through.

The wait for this game was briefly impatient, but has slipped into tedium as the days have rolled on. It's been too long since a meaningful match. We're bored of waiting for it.

The idiocy of trying to pile in an extra round of fixtures, and the resultant gaps in the schedule for recovery time from travel, has been exposed in the past two or three weeks for the players as well.

Once South Africa's bolt had been shot in Durban, the Johannesburg fixture became meaningless, the scoreline a minor boost to South Africa's ailing game, the action an irritating distraction to Australia's planning. The Wallabies had, mentally, already flown back to Brisbane by the time the game got underway at Ellis Park.

At least they had match practice though. New Zealand have played twice in six weeks, one their nilling of the Boks in Cape Town, the other a happy runabout against a weak Samoa that will have done nothing to ratchet up the intensity in preparation for Brisbane. If only two battle-hardened teams were playing.

So much has been made of the Wallabies' 53-8 trouncing in the public eye, but Robbie Deans' post-match reaction - "I'm not even sure if I can be bothered to explain it" - tells its own tale. The tactical book (and the scrapbook) had been closed on South Africa in Durban; the Wallabies had bigger fish to fry.

Tactics and preparation have been so important in this Tri-Nations with its experimental rules. It's been a delight for those who knocked the ELVs, as we have watched the games degenerate from the marathon tap-and-go running contests earlier in the tournament, into the recent kickathon territorial grinds. More tries? Maybe. More attacking rugby? Hardly. Not the creative try-scoring stuff we were supposed to be getting anyway.

In the end, ELVs or not, territory and defence win matches, and no coach will tell you otherwise. The ELVs do force teams to play catch-up in more thrilling fashion when behind, but have they really changed the game at its outset? The only truly discernible difference, by and large, is that fewer kicks go to touch, and that is because the necessity of matching numbers at a line-out has been removed. The line-outs have become a lottery, nice for defenders, but useless when you'd like an attacking platform.

Kicking precision has thus become so important that New Zealand have been given their edge by evolution rather than tactical innovation. They happen to have deadeye Dan Carter at fly-half, while Australia have the less consistent Matt Giteau to direct the punts, and the even less consistent Adam Ashley-Cooper to field and return them.

The line-outs are a lottery, but neither side had an obvious advantage anyway now Stephen Moore is back to chuck the darts at the board for Australia.

New Zealand are clearly superior in the scrums, which is the reason for Robbie Deans' 5-2 split on the bench, but that has heaped pressure upon Matt Giteau. Australia have no other genuine playmaker, particularly not with the boot, and it would be churlish to imagine that New Zealand's huge back-row would not look to bully Giteau out of the game somehow. If he goes, several Australian hopes go with him.

Out wide New Zealand have the edge as well, with a settled and experienced seven lining up against a Wallaby lot with questions being asked in certain key positions. Stirling Mortlock will perform ably at twelve, but his natural game is curtailed. Ryan Cross will do likewise at thirteen, but he will have his hands full with Conrad Smith.

Three-up for New Zealand, but Australia have the edge in the back row. Richie McCaw is only matchable by George Smith, but Rocky Elsom and Wycliff Palu both outmuscle their opponents, especially with ball in hand. There is a source of go-forward ball for the Wallabies, one which the backs must capitalise on.

There's the knife edge. New Zealand ought to win. They have the key players in the key positions: a fly-half who could kick a ball into a bullseye from 50m away, an openside who can turnover anything not kept under a lycra shoulder-pad vest by the attacking side, and some three-quarters who can inflict all sorts of misery when given control. But if Australia's battering rams crack the seams of New Zealand's defence and if they can keep their ball going forward, New Zealand's frustration can get the better of them.

One to watch:

For Australia:
Adam Ashley-Cooper has been spotlighted for his kicking, which has often merely handed ball back to the opposition rather than putting them under pressure. With Dan Carter pumping the ball down his throat, he will need to find a coolness under pressure so far only there in fits and starts this year if Australia are to be able to play the game where they want to.

For New Zealand: The loose trio have one critical mission: disable Matt Giteau. If Kaino, So'oialo and McCaw can put a hold on Australia's pivot, it is difficult to see where Australia's plan B might lie.

Head to head: Dan Carter and Matt Giteau's battle of the boot will decide where the game is played, and ELV rugby is such that once in your own half, it is dreadfully difficult to get out.

Prediction: New Zealand's superiorities: scrum, breakdown superiority, back-line, kicking. Australia's: back row-running, superior match practice, home ground advantage. New Zealand take it 4-3, and on matchday, they'll take it by seven points.

Recent results:

2008 New Zealand won 39-10 in Auckland
2008 Australia won 34-19 in Sydney
2007 New Zealand won 26-12 in Auckland
2007 Australia won 20-15 in Melbourne
2006 New Zealand won 34-27 in Auckland
2006 New Zealand won 13-9 in Brisbane
2006 New Zealand won 32-12 in Christchurch
2005 New Zealand won 34-24 in Auckland
2005 New Zealand won 30-13 in Sydney
2004 Australia won 23-18 in Sydney
2004 New Zealand won 16-7 in Wellington
2003 Australia won 22-10 in Sydney (RWC)
2003 New Zealand won 21-17 in Auckland

The teams:

Australia: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Peter Hynes, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Stirling Mortlock (c), 11 Lote Tuqiri, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Sam Cordingley, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Adam Freier, 17 Matt Dunning, 18 Hugh McMeniman, 19 Phil Waugh, 20 Richard Brown, 21 Brett Sheehan, 22 Drew Mitchell.

New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Richard Kahui, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.