Unsung hero Wayne Smith has been hailed as a driving force in New Zealand’s bid to make history by retaining the World Cup.
Much-vaunted defence specialist Smith guided the Chiefs to Super Rugby success before returning to the All Blacks and adding an extra level of frugality to Steve Hansen’s already mean-spirited rearguard cordon.
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“It’s been pretty good having Smithy back in the camp,” said hooker Keven Mealamu, preparing for his final All Blacks match in Saturday’s World Cup final against Australia. “With guys understanding their roles, he’s been able to put some good systems in place for us.
“But it’s just been good having old Smithy back. Wayne’s got a really good rapport with the players.
“He’s a very smart man. He sees a lot of things a player doesn’t usually pick up on and he’s great at getting his teaching across.
“It’s been really handy having him back.
“His attention to detail really adds to the coaching group we’ve had for the last couple of years.”
New Zealand have conceded just three tries throughout their inexorable march to a second successive World Cup final.
The All Blacks will become the first side to retain the Webb Ellis Cup with victory this weekend, with Richie McCaw set to go down as the best captain in the history of the game.
Veteran hooker Mealamu will end his All Blacks career in Saturday’s World Cup final, likely to earn his 132nd cap off the bench.
Along with Dan Carter, McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the 36-year-old is aiming to exit the Test arena in unrivalled style.
The All Blacks have been at excruciating pains not to hype up their emotions ahead of facing Michael Cheika’s Wallabies.
Mealamu reiterated the party line that the All Blacks will only address the reality of the passing of a clutch of all-time greats once Saturday’s match is done and dusted.
The Blues hooker did however admit he had no idea he would be able to stretch out his Test career for another four years when New Zealand claimed the 2011 title.
“It wasn’t until the next year that I even started to consider it,” said Mealamu.
“For a personal goal I thought how amazing it would be to go to another.
“With the opportunity to play in another final, I’m close to that goal.
“I’m just really pleased to be in this position, to have the opportunity to do this.”
Insisting New Zealand must strike out all thoughts of glory and complete their meticulous preparations, Mealamu said: “I just think it’s an exciting challenge that we’re really walking towards.
“We’ve got an opportunity to do it, so there’s still plenty of days we need to make sure we get right to enable us to do what we want to achieve. It’s a pretty cool opportunity.”
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Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe admits he is “devastated” that Argentina’s World Cup dream ended at the penultimate knockout stage.
The Pumas’ memorable push for glory was halted by a 29-15 semi-final defeat against Australia at Twickenham, which means they now face South Africa in Friday’s bronze medal match.
Argentina won many admirers for their thrilling attacking style of play, and while 70 times-capped Lobbe has vowed such a refreshing approach will continue, he could not mask disappointment that they came up short.
“There are no regrets,” he said. “Last week (against Ireland) every bounce went our way, and we went out with the same ideas against Australia, but they dominated the breakdown and every bounce went their way. It is always tough to play catch-up rugby at this level.
“The only regret would be if we didn’t give it everything and we didn’t believe in what we were doing.
“We are devastated. We had a dream for us to play next Saturday, not Friday, but we got in front of a really good team and they never give up. I’m really amazed with how they defended.
“We threw everything we had, but we couldn’t score and that was the difference. I think it is horrible to lose in a semi-final.”
The future, though, is bright for Argentina. A top-four World Cup finish is guaranteed, repeating their achievement at the 2007 tournament in France, while they also beat South Africa during this year’s Rugby Championship.
And, in addition, a new Buenos Aires-based franchise is preparing to take part in the 2016 Super Rugby competition, therefore further broadening Argentina’s rugby union horizons.
“I am very excited about it,” flanker Lobbe added. “I think the players, the people in charge, everyone has the right mindset and they are staying humble. So if they stay humble and keep working hard and keep enjoying it, we can look at the future with a lot of excitement.
“They are going to play Super Rugby, they are going to play the Rugby Championship and they are going to be together the entire year.”
Reigning champions New Zealand reached a second straight World Cup final by seeing off fellow southern-hemisphere heavyweights South Africa 20-18 in an immense Twickenham showdown.
Tries by flanker Jerome Kaino and substitute back Beauden Barrett proved enough to book a Twickenham return next Saturday, when the All Blacks will face Argentina or Australia.
New Zealand are now one win away from becoming the first team in rugby union history to make a successful world title defence, but they were given a ferocious examination by South Africa’s hard-nosed forwards.
Fly-half Dan Carter kicked a drop-goal, two conversions and a penalty, while his opposite number – 21-year-old Handre Pollard – landed five penalties and his replacement Patrick Lambie booted a penalty 11 minutes from time.
But South Africa, who began their World Cup with a shock defeat against Japan five weeks ago, could not quite do enough during a game of unremitting nervous tension, and New Zealand posted a record 13th successive World Cup win.
It was a match of limited try-scoring opportunities, yet the astonishing collision-force of two mighty packs kept an 80,000 crowd gripped for the entirety of a match that underlined why southern-hemisphere rugby is currently some way ahead of any northern nation.
New Zealand made a nervous start as Springboks full-back Willie le Roux sent centre Jesse Kriel charging through following a defence-splitting pass, and, while the All Blacks cleared immediate danger, Carter’s clearance kick went straight into touch before Pollard landed a third-minute penalty.
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But it only took New Zealand six minutes to settle, and they went ahead when Kaino powered his way to the line for a try in the corner that Carter converted at the second attempt after Springboks wing Bryan Habana was sent back for encroachment following an attempted charge-down.
South Africa, though, gave as good as they got during the opening exchanges, taking the game to New Zealand as Pollard’s second successful penalty made it 7-6.
And there was more to come from the Springboks, with Habana taking a brilliant attacking catch that set up an opportunity for Le Roux, whose kick ahead narrowly evaded the clutches of wing JP Pietersen.
But New Zealand were punished for drifting offside in midfield, and Pollard completed his penalty hat-trick midway through a pulsating half.
South Africa were then unlucky not to extend their lead when Pietersen intercepted a Ma’a Nonu pass and was away, only for referee Jerome Garces to take play back and award New Zealand a penalty.
Before Carter could line up his kick, though, Garces consulted assistant official John Lacey and the penalty was reversed for a neck-roll tackle by All Blacks prop Joe Moody on South Africa number eight Duane Vermeulen.
Kaino then blotted his copybook by kicking the ball away from an offside position, which resulted in Garces giving him a yellow card and Pollard booting another penalty for a 12-7 interval lead.
South Africa knew they needed to make their temporary one-man advantage count immediately after the restart, yet it was New Zealand that struck first through Carter’s drop-goal.
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All Blacks wing Nehe Milner-Skudder then escaped being penalised for obstruction on Habana, but it proved to be his last act of the contest as All Blacks boss Steve Hansen made a first substitution, sending on Barrett.
And Barrett needed hardly any time to make an impact, sprinting over wide out after he collected Nonu’s pass for a try that Carter improved from the touchline after Habana received a yellow card for an attempted deliberate knock-on.
The Springboks were now up against it, trailing by five points, before Pollard and Carter exchanged further penalties and New Zealand entered the final quarter of an enthralling contest 20-15 ahead.
Pollard lined up another penalty attempt as South Africa pressed, but it was reversed by Garces for a neck-roll tackle by veteran Springboks substitute Victor Matfield, and New Zealand cleared the danger.
Pollard was replaced by Lambie as Springboks head coach Heyneke Meyer made full use of his bench, and Lambie stepped up to nervelessly land a penalty with 11 minutes remaining.
It proved to be a frantic finale wholly in fitting with a titanic encounter, yet, as the rain fell from leaden skies, New Zealand had just enough in their armoury to turn the lights out on South Africa’s World Cup campaign.