For modern rugby’s two best sides, it is curious that Saturday will be the first Rugby World Cup final where they have met. Especially when you consider, New Zealand and Australia have lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in four of the seven World Cups, with South Africa v England in 2007 representing the only time neither of them have reached the final.
However, while they stand above the rest of the world within their own rivalry it is desperately one-sided. In 154 meetings, New Zealand have won 105 to Australia’s 42.
To give it more modern context, it’s 31 All Black triumphs to 11 Wallaby wins since 2000. They have also lifted the Bledisloe Cup 13 times in a row between 2003 and 2015.
Superpowers of the game they may be, but the All Blacks are pretty much in a league all of their own. That is, except in World Cups where the Australians hold a 2-1 advantage in this particular series having knocked them out at the semi-final stage in 1991 and 2003.
New Zealand then had their revenge four years ago with a 20-6 victory to reach the final. Australians try to dismiss the rivalry to an extent, as rugby union is everything to New Zealand’s 4.5 million inhabitants while Down Under they also have Aussie Rules, League, cricket and football to concern themselves with.
For New Zealanders, understandably, it is a huge source of pride and is something taken extremely seriously. A dynamic that extends to the two sides that meet on Saturday.
There is a laid back, almost carefree air about what Michael Cheika has done with what was a ragtag bunch 12 months ago. Union has nowhere near the profile of AFL or even the NRL in Australia, yet the likes of James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane carried themselves as superstars.
The All Blacks, with a few exceptions, have always maintained a stoic professionalism and despite being feted almost beyond comprehension back home while having to contend with labels like, “the world’s greatest sports team”, display little ego.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) October 31, 2015
There is flair within their game but they mainly grind teams down with a territorial gameplan based on tactical kicking. Outside of their mauling of an awful French side, have any of their other performances at this World Cup really set the pulses racing?
Australia were dazzling against England, determined against the Welsh and then flawed but eminently entertaining in their two knockout contests.
Cheika relishes the underdog tag; Steve Hansen is more than comfortable leading the favourites. Whereas New Zealand have five mainstays in their starting XV that are likely to retire after Saturday night – Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino – the bulk of Australia’s team – Matt Giteau and possibly Drew Mitchell aside – will stay together.
Saturday’s final will be the closing of a chapter of a golden era of All Black rugby. The rivalry almost irrelevant in the wider narrative.
But it is everything for Australia as they look to rubber-stamp Cheika’s revolution, and enhance the one tangible thing they have over New Zealand in rugby union: World Cup domination.
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