Having rugby as our national sport can be a good and bad thing for New Zealanders.
At its best it’s given the New Zealand Rugby Union the ability to sustain a system where we retain our best players.
At its worst the nation’s obsession with the All Blacks and our arrogance regarding how good the team is compared to other nations often has a negative effect.
It prevents rugby fans from being more appreciative when the team performs well or understanding why their team doesn’t always run away with matches like they expect.
On Sunday morning the All Blacks will go into the World Cup final against the Wallabies as warm favourites. One of the key reasons is due to the great experience a number of key players have, which helps the team retain composure under extreme pressure.
Another reason is the lack of injuries throughout the squad. Many people believe the only significant injury the All Blacks suffered at the World Cup, to Tony Woodcock, may have actually been a good thing.
On the flipside, Australia possess some threats that shouldn’t be underestimated by the New Zealand players and fans. You can’t overstate how important dominating the breakdown is to winning the forward battle in modern rugby, and David Pocock and Michael Hooper are the masters.
The tactical approach the All Blacks take to dealing with the Pocock-Hooper combination at the weekend will be fascinating, especially because Michael Cheika elected not to play them both at Eden Park. In doing so he prevented the All Blacks from quickly addressing the areas where they’d got the upper-hand on the Kiwis in Sydney the previous week.
Israel Folau’s fitness is a crucial element this week. When Pocock and Folau were missing from the Wallabies against Scotland it was almost like taking Richie McCaw and Dan Carter out of the All Blacks team at the peak of their powers back in 2005. Folau possesses the type of game-breaking x-factor that South Africa lacked against the All Blacks at the weekend.
It was obvious that Folau’s ankle was well below 100 per cent when he took the field against Argentina. It’s very likely Cheika will start him again, even if he’s nowhere near 100 per cent, because his presence brings confidence to the Wallabies line-up. It will also give the All Blacks a few additional headaches.
If he’s even near to producing his best form he’ll look to isolate Nehe Milner-Skuda in the air in a similar way to how Bryan Habana exposed him in the semi-final.
The weather conditions are likely to prove vital as well.
New Zealand showed a poor ability to execute their gameplan at the weekend when they attempted to persist with grubber kicks throughout the match, which only let to turnovers.
It’s likely to be a tight match and that is always a concern in modern rugby – not because the All Blacks might ‘choke’ or anything dramatic like that, but more because the 50-50 calls from the referee can be crucial in big matches. The last two Super Rugby finals have been prime examples of that.
New Zealand might be the favoured team this week, but their magnificent winning record since the last World Cup will mean nothing on Sunday morning. They are playing against a re-energised Wallabies team that is constantly improving.
The All Blacks have plateaued a bit more in recent times as they’ve looked to consolidate a formula that has proven so successful for them under the current coaching regime.
One thing you can guarantee is that both Steve Hansen and Cheika, who’ve been known to hold things back at times, will leave nothing in the tank at the weekend. Neither will the 23 players in each team.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed for the type of entertaining spectacle we know these two teams can serve up – and just as importantly a refereeing performance that doesn’t swing the result of the match. May the best team win.