My old buddy Spiro Zavos has a stock response to anybody who asks him “who’s going to win the match?” His reply is: “That’s why we’re having the match, to find out”.
And find out we will at the weekend, because anyone who thinks they know already who is going to win the World Cup is deluding themselves. It’s knockout time.
All the calculations around respective strengths and weaknesses, playing records.
Of all the great ball sports, rugby is the most given to uncertainty.
For one thing the ball is a very unobliging shape, it bounces in ways that can make the most masterful player look like an absolute dope. The rules are complicated, often contradictory and open to far more interpretation than in another other sport.
And unfortunately referees are infuriatingly human and on a hiding to nothing when it comes to adjudicating in circumstances like those faced by Craig Joubert in the Scotland versus Australia match.
In fact, the outcome of that match, and the survival of Australia in the tournament showed about as vividly as any moment in World Cup history how convoluted the rules of rugby have become and how hopelessly inadequate that situation is when it comes to success or failure. And how gormless the game’s so-called governors can be in a crisis of this kind.
Many of us were justifiably furious at the treatment of Joubert who was a victim of the very rules that World Rugby foisted upon him. That was unforgivable, and it showed precisely just how much the outcome of big matches can become an absolute lottery.
So, with all that uncertainty as a backdrop how can any sane person pick a winner? There are, however, some probabilities that can’t be ignored. One of these is that the Wallabies will do better at the breakdowns. They have a younger and quicker back row than the All Blacks, and what looked like a gamble by Michael Cheika when he decided to throw both Michael Hooper and David Pocock into the same mix has been a major factor in Australia’s success.
Although Richie McCaw has been consistently good throughout the tournament, the combined poaching power of the Aussie turnover twins will be very hard to match.
Another is that the Wallabies are arguably a yard or two faster as a collective backline. Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper are both seriously underrated in this regard and man-for-man the All Blacks, particularly in midfield, are increasingly challenged when it comes to outright speed.
On the other hand the All Black backs are a more interesting and innovative squad. They have an ability to conjure up some truly breathtaking moments. These don’t always end in points but they are exceptionally difficult to defend against because of the sheer dexterity with which they are executed.
It is a sign of the times that there are few players in either side who are genuinely capable of beating an opponent by sheer footwork. The All Blacks have the best player in the tournament at this in Nehe Milner-Skudder. The Wallabies have Matt Giteau who has shown that age hasn’t withered his ability to step.
Another probability is that the All Blacks will win more lineouts, or rather will steal a few off the Australian throw. All bets are off when it comes to scrums, however. Without Tony Woodcock the All Blacks scrum just isn’t quite the force it has been for the last decade and that’s something that will be keeping coach Steve Hansen awake at night.
Another probability is that the Wallabies will try to spring at least one radical surprise. It has been said of the 2015 Australian side that they lack the clever, tactically challenging qualities that the likes of Nick Farr-Jones, John Eales, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham manufactured against All Black teams that were by comparison naïve and one-dimensional in their thinking. I haven’t the faintest doubt that thought is being given to ways of jolting the All Blacks off their game.
What does all this add up to in terms of a likely outcome? Not much at all really. This is a match between the two best teams in the tournament, one of them burdened with heavy expectation of success and the other seeking to prove that all the uncertainties will conspire on the day to unseat the favourites.
Bring it on.