All the ma­jor play­ers as­sem­ble, ready to take the big­gest stage


AT the end of a tour­na­ment in which the fre­quency and sever­ity of in­juries have been a ma­jor talk­ing point, there was a sense of re­lief all round when both Aus­tralia and New Zealand were able to an­nounce their strong­est start­ing line-ups for to­mor­row’s Rugby World Cup fi­nal.

The All Blacks have named an un­changed team from their semi-fi­nal against South Africa, while the Wal­la­bies have wel­comed back Scott Sio, the loose­head prop, in their only change.

It is good news for the two teams and their fol­low­ers, of course, that – with the ex­cep­tion of New Zealand prop Wy­att Crock­ett, who has been de­nied a place on the bench by a leg in­jury sus­tained in train­ing – the fit­ness wor­ries in both camps ap­pear to have cleared.

But it is just as re­as­sur­ing for the mil­lions of neu­trals who will be watch­ing the fi­nal on tele­vi­sion, and who want the out­come of the con­test to be de­cided on the pitch dur­ing the game, not be­fore it in a fit­ness test. So the Wal­la­bies’ David Po­cock, who missed out on the quar­ter-fi­nal against Scot­land be­cause of in­jury, will go up against Richie McCaw, the All Blacks cap­tain, in a breakdown con­test that should go some way to de­cid­ing which na­tion will be first to lift the Webb El­lis Cup three times.

Is­rael Fo­lau, an­other Aus­tralian who had to sit out that last-eight match and who has been bat­tling an an­kle in­jury, is able to start at full-back. And Matt Giteau, the only sur­vivor from the Wal­la­bies’ last World Cup fi­nal – the 2003 de­feat by England – has re­cov­ered from a groin strain.

Sio, who sat out last Sun­day’s win over Ar­gentina be­cause of an el­bow in­jury, re­places James Slip­per, who drops to the bench. Toby Smith, a sub­sti­tute against the Pu­mas, is the un­lucky one who misses out on a place in the match­day squad of 23.

While New Zealand coach Steve Hansen had a nearly full squad from which to se­lect, it should not be for­got­ten that he was de­prived of a vi­tal mem­ber of the pack be­fore the knock­out stages be­gan. Tony Wood­cock, the loose­head prop, was ruled out of the rest of the tour­na­ment af­ter in­jur­ing a ham­string in the fi­nal Pool C game against Tonga. As he had al­ready said he would re­tire af­ter the World Cup, that brought down the cur­tain on a 118-cap ca­reer. Wood­cock’s mis­for­tune was Joe Moody’s op­por­tu­nity, and it is one the Cru­saders front-row for­ward has seized. Af­ter re­plac­ing Crock­ett last week, Moody did well enough against the Spring­boks to con­vince Hansen he should hold on to his place, which means he has gone from out­side the squad to a place in the big­gest match in rugby in the space of three weeks.

“It is a bit sur­real,” he ad­mit­ted yes­ter­day. “But I still just pre­pare in the same way.”

Crock­ett’s place on the bench goes to Ben Franks, whose brother Owen starts at tight­head. With only 10 caps, Moody pulls down his squad’s av­er­age, but they still have the edge over Aus­tralia, with 1,339 to 1,205. Hansen stopped short of say­ing that nu­mer­i­cal ad­van­tage would trans­late di­rectly to the match, but, af­ter as­crib­ing the lack of in­juries to good for­tune, he did stress the value of ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We wanted to get some sta­bil­ity,” he said af­ter be­ing asked why he had gone for an un­changed team. “We wanted to get to the busi­ness end pretty solid on our se­lec­tion. We have had lim­ited in­juries, so we have been very lucky.

“It doesn’t mat­ter what you do in life, ex­pe­ri­ence is mas­sive. When you have ex­pe­ri­ence and that ex­pe­ri­ence is in good form, that is a mas­sive ad­van­tage.”

The most rel­e­vant ex­pe­ri­ence the All Blacks can boast is hav­ing won the cup four years ago. But, even with that knowl­edge of what it takes to claim the big­gest prize of all, Hansen is aware that the sheer adrenalin of the oc­ca­sion can threaten the men­tal sta­bil­ity of the best player.

“Not get­ting too ex­cited too early,” he replied when asked what would be the big­gest chal­lenge in the fi­nal. “We don’t want to get car­ried away be­cause it is the fi­nal. We know what works for us and we need to stick to that and make good de­ci­sions.”

While the All Blacks aim to ad­here to a win­ning for­mula, Aus­tralia’s head coach Michael Cheika said his team had yet to hit their best form. Af­ter beat­ing Scot­land by a sin­gle point, the Wal­la­bies saw off Ar­gentina by 14, and in nei­ther per­for­mance did they look as solid as New Zealand did in their wins over France and South Africa.

“We’ll be do­ing our best to make Aus­tralia proud of its rugby team,” Cheika said. “This week we’ve had a strong fo­cus on im­prov­ing cer­tain ar­eas in our game where we feel we haven’t been at our best. We still have lots of scope to im­prove, and we’ll work on that be­fore this next match.”

“This next match” just hap­pens to be the most im­por­tant in the his­tory of the fix­ture be­tween the two sides. As Hansen sug­gested, its out­come could de­pend on how both sets of play­ers deal with the mag­ni­tude of the oc­ca­sion.

Pic­ture: Getty Images

STROLL IN THE PARK: Aus­tralia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper, Scott Sio, Is­rael Fo­lau, Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper of Aus­tralia take a walk through the grounds of their west Lon­don ho­tel.

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