Rugby World Cup
Greg Growden ranks Rugby World Cup finalists New Zealand and Australia
Greg Growden
October 27, 2015
Will All Blacks or Wallabies win rugby's biggest prize?

The north is describing the Rugby World Cup final as the ultimate antipodean showdown - one that has surprisingly never occurred before in the 28-year history of this tournament. It is also the most anticipated of finals; especially as Australia are one of the few teams to recently defeat the all-conquering All Blacks. Who deserves favouritism?

Lomu: 'New Zealand know how to deal with the pressure'

1. New Zealand

The All Blacks have been ranked No.1 all tournament - and with good reason. Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer's claim they are "probably the best team that ever played the game" is a bit over the top - as there have been some other formidable New Zealand line-ups in the past 20 years or so, and they have looked shaky at times during this World Cup. But the 2015 All Blacks do know when they have to produce - and they remain the most professional and composed of all the teams. And as I wrote last week when ranking the four semifinalists, the fact that Daniel Carter is finding form at exactly the right time is the main reason New Zealand are highly fancied to become the first team to successfully defend a World Cup title. Before the World Cup there were mutterings that Carter at 33 was past it. His position within the team was supposedly under threat. But Carter has performed with such poise in the final stages of this World Cup that the only threat is now directed squarely at his opponents. His field goal under enormous pressure, and with little room to move, was instrumental in settling New Zealand after they had struggled early against South Africa. Such a composed performance even saw Ian Foster, one of the New Zealand assistant coaches, asked after the semifinal win whether Carter was in the best form of his career. Foster responded: "He's in the form that we need him to be right now." Fair call!

Dan Carter © Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

"Over the hill' calls have also been made about the other mighty All Blacks statesman. Richie McCaw at 34 is not the player he was four or five years ago, but he is nowhere near a spent force. He remains firmly in control, as was shown by his leadership when the game become tight against the Springboks. The recent targeting of McCaw has also been off the mark. The social media campaign to make a big issue of McCaw's supposed elbowing of Francois Louw was preposterous, and thankfully it was ignored by the tournament's citing commissioner.

Richie McCaw
Richie McCaw © Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The All Blacks also boast one of the most dangerous back-three combinations going around in full-back Ben Smith, and wingers Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea. It is their World Cup to lose.

Michael Hooper © Stu Forster/Getty Images

Cheika: We believe in ourselves

2. Australia

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen got his wish when he said that he wanted Australia and Argentina "to bash each other to bits" in their semi-final. They certainly did that, with plenty of battered bodies staggering around Twickenham after the Wallabies victory. Israel Folau was hobbling, Matt Giteau had to leave the field early, and having one less day to prepare for the final, as well as overcoming ailments, could easily work against Australia. The Wallabies must have every key player available, and having six days rather than seven to be fully primed, may be 24 hours short. Nonetheless the Wallabies are the only opposition the All Blacks are truly concerned about, especially as they have shown repeatedly during this tournament - most notably against Wales and Argentina - that their defensive formation is probably the best in the world.

The All Blacks don't admire too many, but they are genuinely fearful of Australia coach Michael Cheika as they can't quite work him out but know he is an excellent tactician, one of the best motivators going around, who regularly gets the best out of his players. It's hardly surprising during pre-game Bledisloe Cup warm-ups that the All Blacks coaching staff keep a close eye on what Cheika is up to at the other end of the field.

David Pocock
David Pocock © Richard Heathcote - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

As well, Australia has a back-row in David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy - "Faroocock" - that is respected by the All Blacks.

To beat the All Blacks, you have to dominate the back-row encounter - and this is where the Wallabies may have a match-winning edge. It worked in Sydney last August when Pocock, Hooper and Fardy outplayed their illustrious opponents, and their dominance had the desired effect of fracturing the All Blacks ball and hence nullifying the effectiveness of the New Zealand backline. Australia also limited the number of basic mistakes - a common problem with Wallabies line-ups - which restricted the amount of times the All Blacks were able to counter attack. The All Blacks thrive on opposition errors, and you affect the New Zealand power source if you can cut mistakes out of your game. If the Wallabies are to replicate their victory in Sydney, they have to again be virtually mistake free. Not surprisingly, it all went astray the following week in Auckland after the Australian selectors had strangely dismantled a winning line-up, including changing the back-row, and so much momentum was lost.

Scott Fardy
Scott Fardy © Dan Mullan/Getty Images

At least the mongrel has returned to the lineout through the return from Ireland of Kane Douglas, who appears so driven by Cheika's faith in him, while the Wallabies forwards coach, Mario Ledesma, will be working this week in fixing scrum faults that have marred their finals performances against Scotland and Argentina after an excellent start to the tournament. Getting the Australian scrum back on track is imperative, as the All Blacks will be looking at their opponent's set-piece inconsistencies as a way to undermine them.

Clearly the two best teams in the world are in this Rugby World Cup final, and the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion. But it will require Australia doing absolutely everything right to get even close to New Zealand. They do have that potential. It is their World Cup to win.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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