It has held our imagination for the last six weeks and been a truly great tournament, but like all good things sadly has to come to an end, but what an ending! Saturday’s final at Twickenham sees two of Rugby’s all time heavyweights, Australia and New Zealand square off against each other as they try to create history by winning three World Cups. For New Zealand there is the added weight of expectation in trying to win two World Cups back to back. Meanwhile at Olympic Stadium, the most controversial match of any World Cup, the third place bronze medal match takes place between Argentina and South Africa on Friday night. Controversial it may be, but I can’t help feeling that it still means a great deal to the players involved and as a result should still be regarded as a relevant contest. Either way as Rugby World Cup 2015 draws to its epic conclusion, we are in for one last blast of vintage rugby this weekend. Wherever they end up these four teams have still given us some spectacular entertainment and genuine excitement in the course of the last six weeks, and especially in the case of the bronze medal match, we as rugby fans really need to get behind the contestants this weekend as a testimony of our appreciation of what has been some amazing rugby!
Argentina vs South Africa
Friday, October 30th
As mentioned above there has been a great deal of talk in the press about the supposed irrelevance of this game, and how meaningless it is for the players involved. While I don’t dispute for a second that it will require a Herculean effort to motivate teams to play a game that for them is not the final they got knocked out of, it still has ramifications for the teams involved in terms of status. Third place in such an epic tournament is still no mean feat. Just look at what it meant to Argentina back in 2007 and how that really propelled the team into the top echelons of World Rugby. Sure it’s different now, and both Argentina and South Africa are undisputed heavyweights in world rugby’s pecking order so in essence they don’t need to prove a point. However, to finish third in a tournament that has demanded so much of the participants involved is still a significant achievement especially for the younger generation of players in both of the squads battling it out on Friday night. As a mark of respect to both teams it is my hope that the crowd will really get behind Argentina and South Africa on Friday night and salute their efforts to give us one last showing of these superb teams’ skills and abilities.
For Argentina, I can’t help feeling that there is very little concern about motivation in the Pumas camp. From Head Coach Daniel Hourcade to all the players in the squad there is a real desire to repeat the Pumas exploits of 2007 and claim another bronze medal. As is clear from all the players’ statements in the media this week, any opportunity to wear the Pumas jersey and showcase to the world the exceptional skills Argentina now possess is a privilege. Even though they may be without their inspirational Captain and hooker Agustin Creevy, I don’t doubt for a second that the experience and passion of figures like Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe will come to the fore in motivating his fellow teammates. Even without Juan Martin Hernandez and Juan Imhoff Argentina are fielding an exceptionally strong team that is bursting with raw young talent. They will be no pushover.
In the battle of the scrums, even though Argentina are without Agustin Creevy at hooker, two of Argentina’s key weapons Marcos Ayerza and Ramiro Herrera are still packing down in the front row. The lack of experience of Julian Montoya at hooker is made up for by the relative lack of experience of talented prop Frans Malherbe for South Africa. Nevertheless in the battle of the front rows I am just giving South Africa the edge here but it is going to be close. However, when it comes to the battle of the lineout throw Bismarck Du Plessis and his replacement Adriaan Strauss clearly have the upper hand over their Argentinian counterparts for this match.
In the back row battles, it will be fast and furious with South Africa probably coming out on top here especially in the lineouts, with Victor Matfield and Eben Etzebeth provided they keep their focus, discipline and motivation being too much for Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini and Matias Allemano. In the case of Argentina’s Lavanini, he really is a talent and provided he can keep his discipline should provide plenty of fireworks in his battle with Victor Matfield.
For the loose forwards, South Africa’s vast bank of experience in the shape of Schalk Burger and Francois Louw alongside Duane Vermeulen at number eight should also be too much for Argentina to handle. Once again there are no slackers in the Pumas line up here and with talents like Guido Petti and Facundo Isa waiting on the bench coupled with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe at his best in the breakdown, South Africa despite their experience will have to stay sharp for the full eighty minutes.
When it comes to the battle of the halfbacks I personally think Argentina have the edge here. Ruan Pienaar has rarely impressed for South Africa in the last year at scrum half, whereas both Tomas Cubelli and Martin Landajo for Argentina have been outstanding. Rudy Paige on the bench for South Africa at number nine certainly seems to have plenty of talent but is still too much of an unknown at this level. Handre Pollard at flyhalf for South Africa is a good kicker and often superb in the contact areas but is not quite the playmaker that Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez is proving to be. Furthermore Sanchez’s almost effortlessly accurate kicking under pressure is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends in this World Cup. However, if the pressure gets too much for Pollard then South Africa’s own “Iceman” Pat Lambie is waiting in the wings to take over.
In the midfield the electric combination of South Africa’s centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel should just have too much pace and strength for Argentina to counter effectively. Matias Moroni was outstanding in Argentina’s quarter-final heroics against Ireland and he will be a handful for South African defences but I still feel South Africa have the more dominant combination here. On the wings, however it is another story. Horacio Agulla is no slacker for Argentina but it is that man Santiago Cordero who in my opinion outclasses anything South Africa has to offer in this department. Cordero for me has been one of THE players of the tournament and something special always seems to happen when he gets the ball. His sidestepping abilities coupled to some incredible strength in defence, despite his size, have dazzled spectators over the last six weeks. He is more than a match speed and strength wise for his opposite number JP Pietersen of South Africa. If the Springboks can’t contain the feisty little winger then it could be a very long evening. Bryan Habana is always a potential threat for South Africa but I can’t help feeling that the sun really is setting on his fabulous career in a Springbok jersey. Lastly at fullback depending on the type of form he hits in this match, Willie le Roux will either be South Africa’s saviour or a potential liability. He seems to be recovering some of his old form and therefore should be more than a match for his Puma counterpart Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino.
So for me when you look at it this way, this match does have all the makings of a classic irrespective of the supposed humiliation of having to play for third place. I personally think that both teams will be totally fired up for this and given that South Africa are renowned for the pride they place in the Springbok shirt matched up against the sheer passion that the Pumas have shown this tournament, it should be a cracker. Provided there is no drop in motivation levels as the match unfolds I foresee this going down to the wire. However, given the slightly higher level of experience in the Springbok camp, I am giving the battle to them by 10 points even though like many my heart will be with the Pumas. One thing will be sure in the case of the Pumas, as they play all their future stars of the next World Cup we are going to get a privileged look at a team that has the potential, if developed properly, to go all the way next time around in 2019! If that’s not enough to draw you to your television screen on Friday night then I don’t know what is!
New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, October 31st
What an epic and fitting final to a glorious World Cup this promises to be, as two of Rugby’s most successful nations, Australia and New Zealand, square up against each other for Rugby’s ultimate prize. New Zealand still is arguably the best team in the world, but Australia’s meteoric rise under Michael Cheika in the last year to the point where they are snapping at the All Blacks heels for such an accolade is remarkable to say the least. Australia are more than a match for New Zealand and Saturday is a fitting test of who now really gets to wear the crown of not only World Champions but the most complete team in the world.
Both teams are fielding squads that most coaches in international rugby could only imagine in their wildest dreams. You can’t even call it on youth versus experience as both teams are evenly matched on the day in this department. However, overall I just can’t help feeling that from 1-15 New Zealand is just slightly more complete than their Australian counterparts and have a better understanding of how to work together as a team under enormous pressure.
In the scrums, Australia finally has a platform they can compete with after years in the wilderness in this department. Head to head I can see no real advantages in Australia’s Stephen Moore, Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu when matched up against New Zealand’s Dane Coles, Joe Moody and Owen Franks. However, there is one key difference where I think New Zealand has the edge. Exceptionally reliable in the scrums, hooker Dane Coles suddenly becomes absolutely devastating with any kind of loose ball as he suddenly gets transformed into a winger and one of the fastest men on the pitch. Because of Australia constantly having to contain him in this regard I am giving New Zealand the edge in the battle of the front rows. In the back row, the experience, strength and skill levels of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock for New Zealand are the stuff of legends and should effectively overpower Australia’s Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas especially at lineout time. It’s the loose forward battle where I am giving Australia the undisputed upper hand. The trio of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and the player of the tournament David Pocock seem almost unstoppable. New Zealand’s ultimate warrior and master of the dark arts, Richie McCaw will make life exceptionally challenging for this Australian trio, but on the basis of form I don’t see New Zealand’s Jerome Kaino and Keiran Read being able to get the better of their Australian counterparts. Consequently I can’t help feeling that ultimately this is where the game could be won or lost on Saturday.
In the halfback contest it will be up to New Zealand’s Dan Carter at flyhalf and Aaron Smith at scrum half to rectify any wreckage caused by Australia’s Pocock and company, and in these two players you are arguably looking at the best in the world in this department. Dan Carter’s accuracy should see him outdo his Australian counterpart Bernard Foley even though some of the passing skills shown in this tournament by the Australian have been instrumental in getting his team to where they are now. Australia’s Will Genia has more than enough experience and class to counter his All Black counterpart of Aaron Smith provided he hits all the right gears, but my money is still on Smith to come out on top here.
In center field, there is little to choose from in terms of the offerings being put forward by both sides. While Conrad Smith’s form has been erratic of late for New Zealand, Ma’a Nonu alongside him has more than made up for it as he makes his final bow in an All Black shirt. Without a doubt one of the most talented centres ever to grace a rugby field, expect to see Nonu carving up Wallaby defences all afternoon. On the other hand, Matt Giteau’s return to a Wallaby jersey has been one of the best calls made this year by Coach Michael Cheika. While Giteau has the vision and sleight of hand to work miracles, Tevita Kuridrani alongside him has the speed and power to split open any defence. However, for me it is the sheer brilliance of Nonu alone that should just see New Zealand come out on top in the war of the centres.
In the back three I can’t help feeling that there is more class here than most of us will see in a lifetime of watching rugby. I still hold that Australian winger Adam Ashley-Cooper is the ultimate finisher in the modern game today. His tries in this tournament have been an absolute privilege to watch. However, he will need all his defensive know-how and strength to contain New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu Mark 2 in the form of Julian Savea. Nevertheless I still hold that Ashley-Cooper is the more intelligent and skillful of the two which should just see him come out on top. On the other wing, Mr. Electric and New Zealand’s find of the year Nehe Milner-Skudder meets the experience of Australia’s Drew Mitchell. As good as Mitchell is, I can’t help feeling that Milner-Skudder’s speed and sidestep coupled with some phenomenal strength despite his size is too much of a complete package for Mitchell to contend with. Lastly in the battle of the fullbacks, as much as I think Australia’s Israel Folau is one of the best in the business, it is the calmness and composure of New Zealand’s Ben Smith that has so often been a game winner for New Zealand and I have a sneaking suspicion that this could well end up being the case again for the Men in Black on Saturday.
Once you’ve looked at it this way, and then figured into the equation the likes of Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams on the bench for New Zealand, you just can’t help get the feeling that although it is going to be ever so close, New Zealand on paper just have the edge. For that reason I am handing the All Blacks an incredibly hard-fought victory by three points. Still having said that I think this is potentially going to be one of the most dramatic and exciting World Cup finals any of us have been privileged to watch for a very long time and as a result one of the hardest ever to call. I very much doubt it will be one of the low-scoring all out defensively tedious affairs that we have grown so accustomed to in previous World Cups. I may be wrong but I sincerely hope I’m not and both teams go at it as if this were the last and greatest game of rugby on earth. Either way it probably will be for at least the next four years! Gentlemen start your engines!