Saturday at an autumnal Twickenham saw defending champions New Zealand run out deserved winners against a determined Australian side. Alex Roberts offers us his perspective on a momentous afternoon:
For a game anticipated to be a try fest, the first half saw relatively few points as the teams aimed to match one another in technical skill and defensive brilliance. The breakdown, long prophesised to be the most key area, was predictably dominated by Michael Hooper and David Pocock whose dark arts repeatedly frustrated New Zealand’s attacking endeavour. In response New Zealand made sure to keep the ball in Australia’s half and take the opportunity for points when they came, in a way that kept Australia pinned down. Australia were unable to take the ball into New Zealand’s 22 whilst the All Blacks dominated territory, possession and the scoreline through penalties, it wasn’t exciting but it was enough to keep them in front. Then in the last minute they were finally able to unlock the Australian defence when fantastic handling and running lines allowed Nehe Milner-Skudder to go over.
When the second half began the game seemed as good as won when Ma’a Nonu danced his way over the try line to make it 21-3 but it seemed nobody had told Australia. The team that this time last year was the laughing stock of the rugby world, before Michael Cheika got his hands on them, proved why they had made it to the final. Led by former enfant terrible turned inspiring super-sub Kurtley Beale, Australia played their way back into the game with attacking style. As momentum began to swing towards Australia Ben Smith received the first yellow card in a world cup final for a dangerous tackle and the Wallabies immediately pressed home the advantage, scoring through the inspirational Pocock. Then ten minutes later a brilliant chip kick from Will Genia, regathered by Adam Ashley Cooper and offloaded to Tevita Kuridrani put Australia just four points behind.
However if this comeback showed that Australia had the self-belief to keep fighting, New Zealand showed they had the self-belief to hold together, just as seven players in their starting line-up had done four years before. Yet it was a notable absentee from 2011 that stepped up when his team needed him most. It is almost conceivable that Dan Carter could have won this game on his own. He led the way for New Zealand in tackles and once again his mighty boot proved to be New Zealand’s deadliest weapon. Yet it will be that dropkick, beautifully struck from 40 metres and which couldn’t have been hit better if he’d taken it right in front of the posts in his back garden, that will be most clearly remembered. Either that or his monster penalty from halfway to take the lead to 10 points with as many minutes to play. However it was the young faces of this team who had the final word. Ben Smith’s ability to read the Wallaby defence and chip the ball forward for Beauden Barrett, to regather and score not only sealed the win but once again showed the attacking genius that has been the hallmark of this very special team.
Some would say that Carter’s man of the match performance was a fitting end to his career but he was not alone. Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and, of course, Richie McCaw all ran out for one final time for their country and like so many times before they delivered the goods. Yet coach Steve Hansen showed no sentimentality over strategy when he replaced Smith with Sonny Bill Williams at half time, to switch New Zealand’s attacking patterns and set up Nonu’s try. New Zealand’s blend of old wisdom and young skill achieved a hitherto impossible task; gaining the first back to back world championships and allowing McCaw, now hot contender for greatest player of all time, to become the first captain to lift two world cup trophies. However Australia should be lauded as more than worthy opponents with some legends of their own worth celebrating. It was devastating to see Matt Giteau forced off early for his final appearance in an illustrious career and Stephen Moore, while not perhaps having the game he would have wanted, will still be well remembered.
An analysis of every game must include a discussion of the refereeing and while there were some questionable moments Nigel Owens still maintained his usual high standards. Australia were hard done by for a penalty that came from an obvious forward pass missed by Wayne Barnes (of all people!) But Owens decided, fairly, that the penalty infringement superseded the needed to return for the pass. Some have questioned whether Jerome Kaino should have seen a yellow card for his high tackle on Pocock but Owens gave Australia the advantage and as Sekope Kepu saw no yellow card for two dangerous hits in the first half, Owens can be considered to have acted consistently.