And then there were two. After an all Southern Hemisphere weekend in the home of English rugby, New Zealand and Australia are the last two standing.
Currently ranked 1 and 2 in the world, this is how it should be. Here are 5 reflections as the two most impressive teams in the tournament have advanced to the final after their dominant semi-final victories.
- Multi-faceted Men
Having despatched the French with resplendent ease last week, New Zealand booked their place in their second straight World Cup final with an equally impressive, if entirely different, performance against their greatest rivals on Saturday evening. Having cut the French to ribbons with a scintillating backline showing, the All Blacks reverted to a power based game plan where they ground down the Springboks over the 80 minutes. Against a much more aggressive defence this time round, and difficult playing conditions, New Zealand’s handling and precision was exemplary throughout. The margin may have only been two points, but it was a much more convincing victory then the final score would suggest.
Marshalled by Dan Carter, and Beauden Barrett after his half time arrival, New Zealand’s intelligent kicking game kept South Africa pinned back in their own 22, with no way out. The All Blacks kept the ball in South African territory for a whopping 67% of the game, and save for unusual acts of ill-discipline the outcome would have been put to bed long before the final whistle. Having the ability to tailor their game plan for each opponent, in winning tight games in this manner, and also as openly and expansively as the quarter final against France, New Zealand are a nightmare proposition for any defence coach.
- A Good Start is the Half the Battle
Having blitzed Ireland a week ago and established a lead that was never to be overturned, Argentina found themselves on the receiving end of a similar start this weekend against Australia. If Ireland hampered themselves by being narrow and lethargic in defence, the Pumas shot themselves in the foot by trying to be too expansive before they got to grips with the pace of the game. Having thrown a wide pass after just 30 seconds that was almost picked off by Drew Mitchell, Nicolas Sanchez clearly didn’t learn his lesson. With only 90 seconds on the clock, inside his own 22 he tossed a telegraphed inside ball which was intercepted by Aussie lock Rob Simmons, who then trotted in under the posts to register the quickest try at this World Cup.
If that was a sign to Argentina to reign in their gung-ho style until they got a foothold in the game, the memo never found its way to right winger Santiago Cordero. The 21 year old who has been electric in this tournament, called a mark having gathered an Australian chip over the top, in his haste to turn defence into attack he knocked on as he tried to take a quick tap and go. Unfortunately for him, the Wallabies got the ball out of the scrum quickly and two well floated passes later Adam Ashley-Cooper was diving in for a score in the opposite corner to make it 14-0. The Pumas ultimately lost the game by 14 points, the same number of points they needlessly conceded in the opening 10 minutes of the game.
- Scrum Struggles
If Samson lost his strength when shorn of his hair, the Australians lost their scrum stability in the absence of Scott Sio. Scotland put the Wallabies under massive pressure in this area of the game during their quarter final meeting, even before Sio departed with an elbow injury, but Australia were thoroughly dominated by the Pumas up front this weekend. On Sunday James Slipper became the most capped Australian prop of all time with 73, but the 26 year old had a day to forget. Australia conceded four penalties and a free kick at the scrum, with Slipper being pinged for half of those penalties, and the free kick.
So much of Australia’s recent confidence is based on their new found solidity up front, but having been bested now on consecutive weekends, old ghost maybe returning to haunt them. There is hope amongst the Wallaby backroom team that Sio will be fit in time for the final next weekend, and Australia will need him to be. New Zealand may not be the most destructive scrummaging outfit the world has seen, but they work with an efficiency and always ruthlessly maximise the advantages they hold over a team in any area.
- Keeping the Discipline
When you win, there is a tendency to forget about the small print. Both New Zealand and Australia defended well in victory and their try lines rarely looked in threat over the course of their respective fixtures. Yet the result was in the balance in both games right up until the end of their games despite the fact New Zealand scored two tries and Australia registered four while both kept their opponents tryless. What will concern both coaches however is the lack of on field discipline throughout. New Zealand conceded 14 penalties to South Africa, their highest number on the tournament, 7 of which were in their own territory. The Springboks attempted 6 shots at goal from those 7 opportunities and converted them all. In truth this was the only way they looked like scoring oved the course of the full game.
While on Sunday each of Argentina’s 15 points came from the tee, as the Wallabies conceded 12 penalties – 8 of which were in their own half. Finals tend to be often hard-fought, unglamorous affairs and it’s more often than not the team who makes the least mistakes prevail. Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika will likely spend large portions of the week leading up to the final enforcing how important it will be to keep penalties, and free points scoring opportunities to a minimum.
- Unsung Hero’s on Song
As if we didn’t need any more proof as to how important the breakdown has become, this weekend reaffirmed it in no uncertain terms. David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read get most of the plaudits on a game to game basis, but the roles of Scott Fardy and Jerome Kaino are invaluable in the way the Wallaby and All Black backrows function. They may not exactly be afterthoughts when it comes to assessing the respective backrows but they are certainly not to the forefront of the discussions.
Yet, Kaino was immense against the French last week, and silly yellow card aside, was outstanding again against the Springboks. He was replaced after 66 minutes but by that stage had crossed the gainline more frequently than any other player except Ma’a Nonu, carried for 42 meters, completed 9 out of 9 tackles, stole a lineout and scored the games’ opening try. As impressive as Kaino was for New Zealand, Scott Fardy matched that performance the following day for Australia. The blindside made a game high 16 tackles and won 2 turnovers in a terrific 65 minute display. Hattrick hero Adam Ashley-Cooper may have received the man of the match award at full time, but Fardy’s resolute defence was just as integral to the result as Ashley-Cooper’s attacking feats.