The great and the good of this wonderful game will gather in London this weekend for a gala event that will bring down the curtain on a wonderful six weeks of intrigue and excitement that has showcased its finest exponents at the peak of their powers.
Yet, while the 2015 World Rugby Awards taking place at Battersea Evolution tomorrow night offer us a holistic perspective on the state of the game with nominees from all over the world, you can bet the eventual winners for the men’s awards will come from the protagonists of this evening’s less genteel proceedings at Twickenham.
Today’s World Cup final is the real deal. The greatest players in the tournament’s best-equipped teams, both of which have reached the deciding game the hard way and now have the chance to duke it out on the biggest stage for the most glittering prize.
On one level it is all rather predictable, as pre-ordained as the presence of Dan Carter, Michael Hooper, David Pocock and Julian Savea on the shortlist for World Player of the Year, or Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika for Coach of the Year.
They are not the only nominees. Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw and Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones are in, as are Japan coach Eddie Jones and Argentina’s Daniel Hourcade, while Argentina and Japan up for Team of the Year with the All Blacks and Wallabies.
Yet, with all due respect for their efforts, character, skillsets and contributions to what has been a remarkable tournament, you suspect Laidlaw and Alun Wyn, Hourcade and Eddie Jones are merely window dressing. The odds on their success is long. And in the final, the odds are heavily stacked too against Cheika’s Australia.
In the job for less than a year, Cheika has employed all the traits he showed in leading Leinster and Waratahs to their peaks.The results have been phenomenal, on and off the pitch. Cheika has given these Wallaby players back their pride after a lousy couple of years which saw them defined by off-field indiscretions that diluted their undoubted potency on it.
The fruits were first realised in August when he engineered a first Australian win over the All Blacks in four years, teaming open sides Michael Hooper and David Pocock in the same back row to take the shortened 2015 Rugby Championship title with a 27-19 win in Sydney.
Yet, if you think Cheika’s looking at that as a positive omen for today you would be mistaken. He will be the first to remind anyone his side, minus the benched Pocock, played a Bledisloe Cup return match the following week at Eden Park and got stuffed 41-13. What has past is irrelevant as far as he is concerned but Australia know there is genuine cause for concern from an All Blacks team ready to become the first team to successfully defend the Webb Ellis Cup.
This is the last throw of the World Cup dice for captain Richie McCaw and these are the final 80 minutes in the iconic black jersey for Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Dan Carter. They could also be the most telling. Fly-half Carter’s performance in designing the 62-13 humiliation of France in the quarters was approaching the form that earned him the status of best player in the world back in 2005 and at 33 he backed up last week with a tour de force of a different kind, his drop goal against South Africa turning momentum back his side’s way on course to an epic 20-18 semi-final victory that said as much, if not more, about New Zealand’s qualities as the nine-try drubbing of the French. Australia have had defining moments also at this tournament, the breakdown supremacy and cutting edge that sealed hosts England’s fate at Twickenham in the pool stages followed by the defensive valour that saw 13 men hold out a full complement of Welsh attackers to secure Pool of Death honours.
Pocock and Hooper will be back in harness trying to repeat their heroics of the last three months under the brightest spotlight of them all, looking to give Australia’s playmaking triumvirate of Will Genia, Bernard Foley and Matt Giteau the time and space to unleash a scintillating backline. But they are up against it. Whatever Australia do, New Zealand can do it better and under the most extremes of duress.
It is how they have seen off all-comers for so long, and snatched victory from the brink of defeat so many times, not least against Ireland two years ago. They did it again last weekend, when a first-half of poor discipline handed South Africa the initiative only for Carter to lead the fightback. This is, once more, Carter’s moment. A first and last World Cup final for the game’s greatest exponent to secure his crowning glory. Not that he’s thinking that way. Like all these All Blacks, he’s been there and done it.
“I have won a few World Cups in my backyard when I was five or six,” the fly-half said yesterday. “This week it’s the usual routine and the beauty of having a routine set in stone is that it does not change. Whether you’re kicking in training or the World Cup nothing changes.”
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