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.
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.