This is even more important when playing against Australia given the manner in which the Wallabies structure their attacking game. If they are denied front-foot ball with Quade Cooper playing so flat, then it becomes difficult for him to run and put players into space.
The challenge for New Zealand tomorrow is that when David Pocock plays, Australia invariably dominate this crucial sector.
In my view, Pocock had already surpassed the great Richie McCaw as the game’s preeminent open side even before the All Black skipper was laid low with a foot injury that has impacted on his influence at this World Cup. The fifth metatarsal of McCaw’s right foot has now surpassed the torn adductor longus tendon of Dan Carter’s left groin as the most talked-about part of the human anatomy in New Zealand. With their outstanding No 8 Kieran Reid also less than 100% fit, the most potent sector of this New Zealand side is struggling. Just as well, then, that the third member of the back row, Jerome Kaino — the only All Black to play in all 400 minutes of their campaign so far — is in brilliant form. To win tomorrow all three must lead and dominate the breakdown.
There is only one way to deal with the effectiveness of the Wallabies in this crucial area and that is to get physical. I expect to see the All Black forwards flood the contact area with Pocock the primary target. You have to zone in on him and blow him off the ball. The problem is he has such a low centre of gravity and is so strong, that’s easier said than done. I shared an elevator with him in our hotel in Wellington last week — he is a mixture of Charles Atlas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Popeye after a ton of spinach. If New Zealand are to survive this test, then they must somehow eliminate the skill set that Pocock brings to the table.
BOTH sides have issues at half-back and to win a World Cup your out-half pivot has to be a special talent. Think back to the past champions and some of the greatest names in the game have directed the winners — Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky, Stephen Larkham, and Jonny Wilkinson. With Dan Carter crocked and his understudy Colin Slade only lasting thirty minutes in the lead role, New Zealand have issues. Enter Aaron Cruden who starts a game for New Zealand for only the second time. His previous start was also against Australia in the 2010 Tri Nations when at just under 13 stone, he was physically run over by the Australian back row. After that, the New Zealand management drew a line through him but now, after an amazing sequence of events, he finds himself centre stage, directing the multi-talented All Black back line in a World Cup semi-final. The pressure on him is enormous and much will depend on how the young man copes with the expectations of a nation.
It is a help that he is surrounded tomorrow by four of his fellow Hurricanes back line, with Piri Weepu inside him calling the shots and familiar faces in Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane outside. However, the Hurricanes had a very poor Super 15 season with their backs especially poor. Weepu, who was not even in the starting team at the outset of the tournament, has now become the main man, directing traffic at the base, taking the goal kicks, the line kicks and the restarts. Australia will seek to pressure both him and Cruden big time.
The problem for the Wallabies is that Quade Cooper has been all over the place in this tournament and had a shocker against South Africa last weekend. New Zealand know how flaky he can be and will go after him. However he spends so much time hiding at full back, it is difficult to get a hold of him. Capable of brilliance from broken play, there remains a question mark as to whether you can win a World Cup with someone as unpredictable and scattered as Cooper at No 10. Defensively he is poor and Australia will continue with the ploy of positioning Digby Ioane at out half from all New Zealand set plays. It cannot help a young Wallaby midfield set up when you constantly have that chopping and changing inside. To win this one, either Cooper or Cruden will have to seize the initiative and lead the way. It is a big ask for Cruden especially.
NEW ZEALAND so badly want and need to win this World Cup that it is suffocating them. Circumstances have dictated that if they succeed in beating their arch enemy (the New Zealand media continually refer to the Australians as the convicts), and lift the Webb Ellis trophy they will have done it the hard way. Dan Carter and Richie McCaw are the twin totems of the side and one is already gone while injury has reduced the other to a pale shadow of himself. It is the equivalent of Ireland attempting to take on the Wallabies without Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll.
The entire nation is in a state of panic at the thought of losing to Australia in Eden Park and the pressure on the All Blacks is immense. This will test their courage, belief and conviction to the full. Even worse for them, they face an opposition which, despite on average losing two in every three contests between the sides, retain a belief they can always beat the All Blacks. Not every side has that inner strength taking on the All Blacks. Of course, the Wallabies won last time out (25-20 in Brisbane last August) so history is kind of against them.
However, these Wallabies are a resilient bunch. How else could you account for the manner with which they have coped with a crippling injury list, that defeat by Ireland a few weeks ago and the manner in which they prevailed over the Springboks with a crocked scrum, a dodgy line-out and Quade Cooper having a nightmare at out-half? They survived for one reason — raw courage and a refusal to be beaten. Their commitment in defence, the manner in which they threw life and limb into thwarting every Springbok attack and, admittedly, a decent dollop of luck, just about saw them over the line. Time will tell just how much that physical battering has taken out of them but the one thing you know is that this Australian side will never give up. That is what makes this so difficult to call.