The stage is set. Twickenham will host the Rugby World Cup Final on Saturday evening, with Australia taking on champions New Zealand to decide who will capture the William Webb Ellis Trophy. Here at Pundit Arena HQ, we can’t wait. It’s just 145 hours and two minutes until kick-off, but who’s counting?
As part of our build-up, we have decided to take a stab at picking a combined Australia/New Zealand XV. Please feel free to let us know your thoughts on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, we’re diving for cover.
Full-back: Israel Folau (Australia)
If the only two games of Rugby you have ever seen were the World Cup semi-finals, then Ben Smith would be a clear favourite. Folau had an off-day against Argentina, but is nonetheless a classy operator. The battle of the 15s may well be telling in the result, but the Aussies may just have the edge in this department.
Right Wing: Nehe Milner-Skudder (New Zealand)
Again, if this were selected upon semi-final showings alone, Adam Ashley-Cooper would walk into this jersey. On the tournament and season as a whole, there is only one winner. NMS has had an amazing year, becoming perhaps the most dangerous attacking winger in the world. With footwork like that, it is hard to deny him a place in this team.
Outside Centre: Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand)
Yes, Nonu is primarily an inside centre, but to make the best possible XV, we have cheated a bit here. The real call here is picking Matt Giteu ahead of Conrad Smith for the team. It has not been unheard of for Nonu to play at outside centre, and perhaps we are solving a headache for Toulon coach Bernard Laporte, where both Nonu and Giteau will be playing after the World Cup.
Inside Centre: Matt Giteau (Australia)
Lower your pitchforks. Conrad Smith is a world class centre in his own right, but Giteau’s playmaking has made a real difference since Michael Cheika elected to make the overseas players available. Giteau’s passing and kicking have set the Aussie back-line alight more than once throughout this tournament, and stylistically, he would be a perfect fit at 12 for this selection.
Left Wing: Julian Savea (New Zealand)
Savea has scored eight tries so far in this World Cup, and only needs one more to set the record for the most five-pointers ever by one player in a tournament. Savea brings power, pace, and raw footballing ability. There should not be too much debate about his inclusion here.
Fly-Half: Dan Carter (New Zealand)
While this writer is an unashamed convert to the church of Beauden Barrett, Steve Hansen does not share the same view. We will stick to those likely to start for the purposes of this selection. Carter is not the force he once was, but has shown against France and South Africa that he is still a top drawer out-half. While Bernard Foley is having the tournament of his life, and is eating up the pressure situations, he is simply not operating on the same level as Carter.
Scrum-Half: Aaron Smith (New Zealand)
Smith has taken his game to the next level this season. There have been three scrum-halves battling for the number 9 shirt for the Wallabies this season, yet just like at 10, the All-Blacks are operating on a different level.
Loose-Head Prop: James Slipper (Australia)
Prior to this season, to suggest an Australian prop would make the All-Blacks side would be laughable. However, such has been the influence of Mario Ledesma, the Wallabies now possess a set-piece which provides them with a solid platform. Slipper has been a revelation this season. Injury to Tony Woodcock has meant that the Kiwis have lacked stability in this department.
Hooker: Stephen Moore (Australia)
The Australian captain is the form hooker of this World Cup, along with Ireland’s Rory Best. An Irishman himself, Moore has been instrumental in a much improved Wallaby set-piece this season. Dane Coles does make a strong case for inclusion. However, the former’s leadership combined with a flat-out work-rate means that he gets the nod.
Tight-Head Prop: Owen Franks (New Zealand)
Franks is a classy operator, and does the simple things right. He held his own at scrum-time against the ‘Beast’ on Saturday, and will be looking to repeat the trick in six days time. Sekope Kepu has improved, but Franks sneaks it here.
Second Row: Brodie Retallick (New Zealand)
Let’s move on, shall we?
Second Row: Sam Whitelock (New Zealand)
Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas have been performing well for the Australians this year, but to partner Retallick, Whitelock is the ideal candidate. The Crusaders lock showed the Springboks that he is a force to be reckoned with at the line-out, and that performance suggested he is perhaps underrated.
Blind-Side Flanker: Kieran Read (New Zealand)
Just like at the centre, we have to positionally change things around to find the best team. If you were to list the top five back-row players in world Rugby at present, Read would probably join Richie McCaw, Michael Hooper, David Pocock, and Sergio Parisse. Here-in lies the problem. Four into three doesn’t go. Read was a primarily a blind-side until 2009/2010, so we back his versatility to slot in here.
Open-Side Flanker: Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
A straight shoot-out between McCaw and Hooper here. Both have their merits, and are two of the very best. It could be a flip of a coin. We’re opting for McCaw.
Number Eight: David Pocock (Australia)
The Brumbies open-side has been played at number eight by Michael Cheika this season, and it has been an inspired decision. When he was missing for the quarter-final against Scotland, it was telling. His performance against Argentina was one for the ages. Depending on your opinion, Pocock could be moved to 6 to swap Read to 8.
So there you have it. New Zealand have ten players to Australia’s five. What changes would you make to our combined Australia and New Zealand XV? As always, let us know your thoughts on our Facebook page. Roll on Saturday!