DONAL LENIHAN: A final to be decided by defensive excellence

1. Australia will always back themselves to beat New Zealand.

The great Tom Kiernan once declared on national radio that, every three or four times Ireland played Australia, we would beat them nine times out of ten! Sitting with Moss Finn in RTÉ’s Cork studio that day, we suppressed a chuckle but we both knew exactly what he meant.

That was back in the early 80s before the great Grand Slam Wallabies side of 1984 came to Britain and Ireland, swept all before them. They changed the face of Australian rugby forever.

Today they seek to win a World Cup for a third time in a fourth final appearance while we are still trying to find a way to make a first ever semi-final.

I was reminded of Tommy’s comment in Twickenham last Sunday, immediately after Australia had secured their place in the final when an Australian journalist suggested to me that every four times the Wallabies would play New Zealand, they would win one.

I politely reminded him that, in fact, the Wallabies had only won one of the last ten meetings between the sides. Yet with a win and two draws, they boast the best record of anyone against this New Zealand side since they were crowned champions in 2011, despite the fact that they have been in disarray for long periods over the last four years. That is why you can never write off the Wallabies.

The one thing you know with certainty with Australia is that they won’t be lacking in confidence or belief when they go into battle against New Zealand. That immediately puts them in a better starting position than the majority of sides, many of whom enter contests against them in hope rather than expectation. To beat New Zealand you cannot harbour any of the negative thoughts or mental fragility because they will sense it immediately and rip you apart.

Australia carry no such baggage despite some torrid days against their great rivals. Last time out they were beaten 41-13 in Auckland only a week after the magnificent 27-19 win in Sydney that delivered a first ever Rugby Championship.

Michael Cheika was playing silly buggers that day, however, and made several changes to the Wallaby side that had just beaten them. He knew the chances of winning at Eden Park the following week were minimal so rested several players for bigger tests ahead. That test comes today and Australia are prepared, confident and have the belief they can win. The big question is, are they good enough?

2. A back row battle like you have never witnessed before.

Four years on from that fraught win over France in the final at Eden Park, New Zealand’s imperious back row trio of Jerome Kaino, Kieran Reid and Richie McCaw will line out as a unit for the last time at international level. While they provide the classic combination of ball winners, ball carriers and turnover specialists, that is only the beginning of what they offer the All Blacks.

Reid is up there with the game’s top off loaders, is outstanding defensively and has the leadership skills that make him the automatic heir apparent to the captain’s armband when McCaw departs the scene. Kaino is the enforcer, ball carrier supreme and a regular try scorer.

However, it is in the battle to generate turnovers that this contest could yet be decided. In that respect none has been better that McCaw over the years with the exception of Australian poacher supreme David Pocock. He has surpassed the great New Zealand skipper at this stage and has been the player of the tournament to date.

Cheika saw it as a no brainier when he came on board just over a year ago that Pocock, working in tandem with another voracious groundhog in Michael Hooper, could redefine the balance of back row play, which they have done.

It helps that in Scott Fardy, Australia have a selfless workhorse with an insatiable appetite for hard graft and for putting in massive hits. Adam Ashley-Cooper’s hat-trick of tries dictated the man of the match award against Argentina last Sunday but for me, Fardy’s contribution was both selfless and his team’s most influential.

McCaw will appreciate more than most just how much he has left in the tank, which I suspect isn’t much after giving so much for so long. Yet he is a proud beast and will want to leave the stage on a high and has no intention of playing second fiddle to Pocock or Hooper. His drive is amazing and one of the main reasons that New Zealand lose very few games on his watch. Today equals collide when the respective back rows go head to head in the battle for breakdown supremacy. That fascinating contest will go a long way towards deciding the destination of the Webb Ellis trophy.

3. Defence still wins trophies.

The amazing quality on show across the respective back lines suggest a tryfest especially as the magnificent autumnal weather conditions that have blessed this brilliant tournament are set to continue in Twickenham today.

Has any final been graced with such mercurial attacking talent as Savea, Milner-Skudder, Ben, Conrad and Aaron Smith along with Nonu and Carter - and that’s on the black side alone. Across the way in gold, semi-final hat- trick hero Ashley-Cooper, Mitchell, Giteau, Kuridrani, Folau, Giteau and Foley are all capable of producing moments of individual brilliance.

Yet this contest is likely to be decided by defensive excellence. New Zealand may be the team of all talents but, for all their attacking prowess, their focus on defence is relentless. They have only conceded one try in their last three games and four in total across six tournament outings. Two of those came in the less fraught pool outings against Namibia and Georgia and just one in 160 minutes of knockout rugby against France on a night when they scored nine themselves.

Bottom line is no side has managed to score more than a single try against them in any of their contests to date. To beat them you will, most probably, need to score at least two.

Australia were the pioneers of organised defensive systems and won the 1999 World Cup on the back of conceding just one try on the way to lifting the trophy. While they have leaked one more try than New Zealand en-route to the final, three of those were conceded against Scotland, including a block down and an intercept, in a bizarre quarter final.

More telling is the fact they kept the excellent Argentineans try less in the semi-final as they did Wales despite being down to 13 men for seven minutes when Sam Warburton’s men were camped on their line. Even England, in front of a raucous Twickenham crowd, only managed one five pointer.

The one thing we know with certainty is that Australia will attack New Zealand at every opportunity and, as we saw in that pool game against England, they have an endless array of Joe Schmidt style strike plays off set pieces that can open up defences. In Foley and Giteau they have two master play makers with subtle hands and magical feet.

A lingering ankle injury has restricted Folau’s impact on the tournament to date but you just know that he is a big game player, built for occasions such as this.

New Zealand are no longer hampered by the weight of expectation that saw them stumble over the line against France four years ago while Australia are so much further advanced than they dared dream this time last year that they enter this contest with no inhibitions and nothing to lose. That makes them very dangerous even if New Zealand still look the more likely winners. Brace yourself for a potential classic.

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