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Finals can be dour affairs but this should be different

By George Hook

After seven enthralling weeks of breathtaking action, we have a final fitting of this World Cup. For many, this was always the dream ticket: two attacking teams, playing attractive rugby, going head-to-head in a winner-takes-all battle.

New Zealand are the form Test side of the last four years. They have delighted, mystified and enthralled in equal measure since the last World Cup, with an astonishing win record of 48 from 52 Tests, with one draw and three defeats. This afternoon they come up against their neighbours and bitter rivals Australia. Rugby fans the world over are bursting in anticipation. This match-up has the potential to be a classic for the ages.

This time last year, before Michael Cheika took charge, the Wallabies were in disarray. Ego-maniacs threatened to destabilise the entire camp as stories of ill-discipline abounded.

Cheika's first move when he took over from Ewen McKenzie was to weed out trouble-makers and unify the squad. Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale were banished from the starting XV, while James O'Connor's international exile was ruthlessly rubber-stamped.

New talent emerged in the form of Bernard Foley, Tevita Kuidrani, Dan Skelton and Scott Sio. Each possessed an appetite for success and a work ethic that reflected the coach's uncompromising ethos.

A team that had previously lacked direction and focus began to knuckle down, before transforming itself into the disciplined unit we see today. If Australia beat New Zealand this afternoon, Cheika will deserve the lion's share of the glory.

There is little doubt that Australia and New Zealand possess all the ingredients necessary to make this a memorable final, but past performances might dampen expectations. A glance at previous World Cup finals does not support the theory that this will be a high-scoring affair. Four of the last seven finals have been decided by less than seven points. New Zealand, smothered by history and home pressure, struggled to see off a dogged France side by 8-7 in the 2011 final.

One could make a reasonable argument that New Zealand crumbled under pressure four years ago and it is right to question how they will handle the occasion tomorrow.

For Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, two of the greatest players of the last century, this will more than likely be their final international Test.

It is absolutely vital that any emotion around their imminent departures is parked. Australia will be only too happy to capitalise on any mental weakness.

New Zealand come into this game in perfect working order. Steve Hansen has been blessed with a relatively easy run-in and last week's semi-final against South Africa was the first time New Zealand were properly tested.

Australia cannot boast such a luxury with several key players in the starting XV bruised from a titanic battle against Argentina. So much of Australia's chances tomorrow will rest on the form David Pocock and Israel Folau. If either player is off their game, it is difficult to see Australia winning.

The luck of the draw was not with Australia this year. A gruelling battle to get through the pool stage meant that the Wallabies had a succession of difficult matches against England, Fiji and Wales, before they almost came undone against Scotland in the quarter-final. The victory against Argentina will also have taken its toll.

But South Africa proved that New Zealand are not infallible. If the Wallabies can match the physicality of their opponents up front, they will force New Zealand out of their comfort zone. Carter is the master-craftsman with time and space on the ball, so I expect Hooper and Pocock to attempt to shut him down as quickly as possible.

This game will come down to which team wants it more. Australia don't fear New Zealand the way northern hemisphere teams do. There is a mutual respect, but the Wallabies know how to beat the All Blacks and they won't let them get a foothold on the game.

The best referee in Test rugby will take charge and Nigel Owens' common-sense approach should allow for a fast and free-flowing game. Let's hope it lives up to its billing.

Belfast Telegraph


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