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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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Hansen's clinical All Blacks face off against Cheika's transformed Wallabies

The two best teams in the world go head-to-head in Twickenham this afternoon.

Murray Kinsella reports from London

STEVE HANSEN GAVE us food for thought at one stage during the build-up to this World Cup final.

Steve Hansen Hansen is a sharp operator. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Asked if there’s one lesson his father Des taught him that he goes back to more than others, Hansen went with a simple phrase that you could read in a number of ways.

“You get all your options off the opposition.”

There was a thoughtful silence around the room before Hansen followed up.

“You might want to go away and think about that. If you take some time out in a slow and quiet place I think you’ll work it out.”

Des Hansen was something of a legend in the Christchurch rugby community and coached the Marist club before passing away in 2012. The fact that Steve’s father was a noted tactician means he was always of good stock to make an All Blacks coach.

Having helped the Kiwis to their 2011 World Cup success as an assistant to Graham Henry, Hansen has excelled since stepping up as the big boss. He says he is more suited to this role and just three defeats during his tenure speak volumes of his ability.

Opposing him today is another coach with a record that stands up to the closest of scrutiny. Michael Cheika has had many notable successes, but his transformation of the Wallabies in the space of a year has been truly remarkable.

The Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie eras seem like distant history now, such has been the shift under Cheika. New standards, new expectations, a new coaching staff, a new mindset, new rules and returning faces – the former Leinster coach has overhauled it all.

“They always say that if you look backwards, you’re going to get a sore neck, aren’t ya?” said Cheika yesterday in relation to the Wallabies having beaten New Zealand already this year, but the words can be applied to Australian rugby as a whole.

New Zealand fans New Zealand's fans expect success. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In a sport where we constantly underline the important of World Cup ‘cycles’, anyone looking back more than 12 months might feel that the Wallabies’ run to this final is built on flimsy foundations.

In contrast, the Kiwis have spent four years building towards this point, growing their mental strength, amassing an enviable amount of Test match experience even among their replacements and fine tuning their tactics. More than any other nation, New Zealand judge themselves on World Cup performances. This is everything.

Bringing back Wayne Smith as defensive specialist and all-round guru this year was a clever finishing touch from Hansen, although Cheika’s addition of Nathan Grey, Stephen Larkham and Mario Ledesma in January has equally made a difference.

When assessing the team sheets before today’s 4pm kick-off, it’s the All Blacks who appear to have the better individuals, the more explosive talent. Israel Folau’s fitness has prevented him from firing on all cylinders for Australia so far, although David Pocock has been the best player in the world in 2015.

Matt Giteau is perhaps the most important of the Australian lot for this final, however. Games like this one are exactly the reason Cheika forced the ARU to change their policy on overseas-based players.

Aside from the enviable array of attacking and defensive qualities he possesses, Giteau has the crucial mental edge needed for these cup games. So many of the All Blacks team look to have that attribute too, although there’s nothing like a World Cup final to test it.

2013 in Dublin was a big moment for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in terms of their belief that they could go toe-to-toe with the very best, but New Zealand took from that incredible last-gasp win an enormous self-belief that has only continued to grow.

Twice in last weekend’s semi-final against the Boks there were moments when Hansen’s men could have doubted themselves and wavered. On both occasions they were proactive and confident.

The Australia team stand for the National Anthem The Wallabies possess great self-belief. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In terms of the Australian’s self-belief, the return of loosehead Scott Sio to the scrum is hugely important, and it’s one area where the Wallabies will go after the Kiwis. We’ve spoken about the back row and backline talent all week, but the tight fives in a cup final are enormously crucial.

“Rugby hasn’t changed as long as most of us have been breathing,” said Hansen yesterday. “The game is won up in the tight five and if they go forward, your loosies go forward and your backs go forward. The team that does that tomorrow will probably have the easier ride.”

Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock look to have the edge over Kane Douglas and Rob Simmons, but then a World Cup final is as much about work rate as it is skill. The Wallabies pair have been incredibly hungry so far.

New Zealand’s maul looked a little vulnerable against last weekend, while the Wallabies have been holding back in that area in recent times. Perhaps Cheika will unleash those Pocock-driven beasts today.

The Kiwis kicked intelligently last time out and more of the same is likely as they look to dominate the territory game again. Nehe Milner-Skudder can expect aerial bombardment after losing two balls to Bryan Habana in the semi-final, although Hansen will be ready to shift Ben Smith wide again if that transpires.

These are the two most clinical attacking sides in the world but one senses that the Kiwis have the edge in that area.

With so many other departments of the contest being evenly matched, it may come down to the ability to identify one or two try-scoring chances and take them ruthlessly. Even the Wallabies don’t quite exploit opposition chinks like the All Blacks.

Hansen’s men tend to get all their options off the opposition, and usually they pick the right one.

Verdict: New Zealand.

New Zealand:

15. Ben Smith
14. Nehe Milner-Skudder
13. Conrad Smith
12. Ma’a Nonu
11. Julian Savea
10. Daniel Carter
9. Aaron Smith

1. Joe Moody
2. Dane Coles
3. Owen Franks
4. Brodie Retallick
5. Sam Whitelock
6. Jerome Kaino
7. Richie McCaw (captain)
8. Kieran Read

Replacements:

16. Keven Mealamu
17. Ben Franks
18. Charlie Faumuina
19. Victor Vito
20. Sam Cane
21. Tawera Kerr-Barlow
22. Beauden Barrett
23. Sonny Bill Williams

Australia:

15. Israel Folau
14. Adam Ashley-Cooper
13. Tevita Kuridrani
12. Matt Giteau
11. Drew Mitchell
10. Bernard Foley
9. Will Genia

1. Scott Sio
2. Stephen Moore (captain)
3. Sekope Kepu
4. Kane Douglas
5. Rob Simmons
6. Scott Fardy
7. Michael Hooper
8. David Pocock

Replacements:

16. Tatafu Polota-Nau
17. James Slipper
18. Greg Holmes
19. Dean Mumm
20. Ben McCalman
21. Nick Phipps
22. Matt Toomua
23. Kurtley Beale

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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