New Zealand v Australia – RWC 2015 Final

New Zealand v Australia

New Zealand and Australia were the teams ranked 1st and 2nd going into the World Cup, so it is fitting that they should contest the final. It has been contrasting journeys for the rivals to reach this point though.

The presence of a World Cup every four years does create a cycle for most teams, with coaching changes, senior players retiring and young players brought into the squad after a tournament, with an eye on preparing for the next one.

There was continuity for 2011 winners New Zealand though, with assistant coach from 2004-2011 – Steve Hansen, taking full charge in 2012. Unlike his peers, Hansen didn’t have to rebuild a team and rather had the challenge of trying to win the trophy again. The All Blacks won 42 and drew 2 of their 47 matches leading into this competition, by an average score of 32-16.

Looking at the starters selected since 2012, it can be seen that most were picked in the World Cup squad (with Moody a later call up for the injured Woodcock). Depth was built in most positions from 2012-15, but not at the expense of losing matches.

NZ 2012-2015 starts

The decisions to take only three specialist locks and opting for form picks in Milner-Skudder and Naholo, over more experienced choices, were the only slight surprises when the World Cup squad was named.

While certain other teams were still trying to identify their first choice team or a style of play, New Zealand were able to use their 2014 autumn tour as preparation for the pool stage of the World Cup.

That planning has meant that when they lost both Woodcock and Crockett to injury recently, they could call upon Joe Moody who had started away against South Africa and on two of the tour games in 2014.

Experimentation was possible because they had established and proven combinations already in place. The backrow of Kaino, McCaw, Read and centre pairing of Nonu and C Smith started in the previous World Cup and had made 19 and 35 starts together respectively by 2012.

NZ 2014-2015 starts

There were therefore plenty of reasons to support the argument of the All Blacks being favourites before this World Cup began – form, experience, a settled team, previous success in the competition, composure in big games etc.

It would have been much harder to make a case for Australia though, a year ago. A team on their third coach, after the departures of Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie that had won 21 of 40 matches from June 2012 – October 2014.

With the exception of 2007, recent winners tended to have a good form in the season before a World Cup.

form 2015

The Wallabies had only won 2 of 15 games against New Zealand and South Africa from August 2012-October 2014 and had reached a low ebb after a defeat in Mendoza. There were also plenty of off-field distractions in these years – Quade Cooper’s ‘toxic environment’ comments in 2012, the suspension of the ‘Dublin Six’ in 2013 and the Kurtley Beale / Di Patston case.

When Ewen McKenzie resigned in October 2014,saying the “easiest thing for me is to exit stage left….I’ll leave you guys to speculate or ponder, I’ll write a chapter in my book”, there wouldn’t have been many thinking that Australia would win 10 of 11 games in 2015 and reach the final. An exit at the pool stage might have been more likely.

Michael Cheika was the clear first choice to replace McKenzie but it wasn’t a given that his appointment would prove successful. Having to juggle his roles with Australia and the Waratahs could have backfired. Backing Beale after the scandal could also have backfired, especially when it is considered that Christian Leali’ifano had said losing Patston was like “losing a mother”. With a rumoured rift between the Brumbies and Waratahs players (more so than usual), just hiring the current ‘Tahs coach could also have caused further problems. It was then a completely different scenario to the one Hansen encountered when taking charge of New Zealand.

Cheika does have a reputation for changing the perception of teams and then winning trophies with them. The stereotyped ‘cappuccino-sipping Dublin 4 types’ at Leinster were turned into Heineken Cup winners in his time there and he took a Waratahs team that had finished 11th in 2012 to the title in 2014.

He has certainly addressed the view that the Wallabies were a divided squad and able to be pushed around up front. It has become popular to mock any references to culture or identity but the Australian players have certainly bought into Cheika’s vision.

Adam Ashley- Cooper said in September: “ We have done a lot of work on our own identity – individually and our Team Wallaby identity…That identity is about playing with no fear, never taking a backward step, having a physical edge, being relentless in defence and all this set of values that we believe embodies the Wallaby jersey and the Australian player.”

Will Genia, this month: “The one thing I’ve noticed the most is probably just creating an identity that the Wallabies can stand for. In the years I’ve been involved, we haven’t really had something where we can say ‘this is what it means to be a Wallaby, this is who you have to be as a person to be a Wallaby…his big thing was coming in and trying to create that identity and everybody’s had to buy into that. Culturally, it’s made a big difference to this group.”

Had Australia lost a run of games, would tasks like asking players to trace their family tree have been criticised? Possibly, based on what happened with England – but then again recent comments from Billy Vunipola would suggest he’d have welcomed knowing his teammates better. The ‘no dickheads’ policy and ‘sweeping the sheds’ are often highlighted as reasons that New Zealand are successful too.

The March training camp that came after a spiteful game between the Waratahs and Brumbies is being heralded as a turning point. It isn’t a stretch to think that under a different regime the David Pocock / Jacques Potgieter incident could have caused problems but Cheika has been proved capable of uniting these players. Johnny Sexton in his book talked about two similar meetings in his time with Ireland, when players spoke about putting aside rivalry between provinces for the good of the Test team.

Cheika has added a tough edge to the Wallabies, which might be expected from a man who reportedly responded to being knocked over by Wayne Shelford in 1988 by saying “Is that all you’ve got mate?”

He assembled a coaching team with specific experience of winning World Cup games – Stephen Larkham won 11 of 12 matches, Nathan Grey 7 of 7 and Mario Ledesma 12 of 18.
Larkham has said this week that “From all reports, the game plans, the attacking style and defensive style would change from week to week…. I think that since ‘Cheik’ came on board, there’s been a really clear direction”.

There isn’t the same attention given to ‘coaching trees’ in rugby as there is in NFL but that running Randwick style – from Wally Meagher and Cyril Towers to Bob Dwyer to Eddie Jones, Michael Cheika, Ewen McKenzie might be highlighted later as significant.

In 2013 after a loss away to the Crusaders, Cheika said “I have got no credibility; I am just a newbie here. I have got nothing but I have got a team that is prepared to put everything out on the paddock…..and if we are a soft target because maybe people are not used to us being winners, then we will have to change that by coming back harder every time.”

That was in relation to scrum decisions that didn’t go his team’s way and he had a similar challenge with the Wallabies in late 2014. The idea of changing attitude and earning respect does crop up a lot in quotes from Cheika and along with Ledesma it can be see they were the right people to sort out the Wallabies set-piece. That was the area they were supposed to struggle in against England in the pool match and instead it proved to be a weapon.

There are examples of regular starters since 2012 not making the World Cup squad. However that is understandable with the coaching changes in this period.

AUS 2012-2015 starts

The first choice front row of Sio, Moore and Kepu made their first start together just three games before the World Cup and the same can be said of the Fardy, Hooper, Pocock backrow combination. At lock – Douglas and Simmons made only their third start together in the final warm up game against the USA while Genia and Foley’s first start was in the first pool match, against Fiji.

Again that is a contrast with the settled combinations in the New Zealand team, but then the World Cup isn’t necessarily decided by the team that has been best for the last four years. South Africa went on a run of 18 wins from 20 matches from Nov 2012-Aug 2014 and Ireland won 15 of 17 games from Feb 2014-Aug 2015 but neither reached this final.

In 2015, Australia have beaten South Africa with two tries in the final ten minutes, avenged the former Mendoza loss with a 34-9 victory there, beat New Zealand in Sydney, achieved a record win at Twickenham against England and put on a long defensive stand against Wales when down two players. Those are all wins that will have built confidence and likely wouldn’t have occurred in previous years.

An important factor in Australia’s resurgence has been the availability of experienced players. Strong characters in Moore and Pocock returned from injury in 2015 and a change to the overseas selection rule allowed Giteau and Mitchell to be selected. Mumm and Douglas also returned home from stints at Exeter and Leinster.

There were inevitable comparisons with England’s overseas selection policy, especially when the hosts exited the competition early, but Cheika was in a far better position to negotiate that rule change than Lancaster was.

AUS 2014-2015

While it has proved a success, there were plenty of doubts raised about how a backrow of Fardy, Hooper and Pocock would function and particularly whether the lineout would suffer.

Pocock is having an incredible season – with 29 turnovers won in 1035 minutes at Super Rugby level, 8 in 188 minutes during the Rugby Championship and 14 in 299 minutes so far this tournament. For Fardy it was 17 in 1390 minutes for the Brumbies, 3 in 209 minutes in the Rugby Championship and 5 in 381 so far in the World Cup while Hooper’s tally is 9 in 1348 minutes, 3 in 189 minutes and 2 in 322 minutes.

In comparison, McCaw won 13 in 670 minutes for the Crusaders, 4 in 240 minutes during the Rugby Championship and 6 in 297 minutes in the World Cup with Kaino 7 in 622 minutes for the Blues, 1 in 143 minutes and 4 in 416 minutes this tournament. Read had 6 turnovers in 784 minutes in Super Rugby, 3 in 240 minutes in the Rugby Championship and 8 in 431 minutes in this World Cup.

When these backrows faced off earlier in the year the turnover count was Pocock 2, Hooper 2, Fardy 1 to Read 2, McCaw 1, Kaino 0.

In the 2011 World Cup semi-final between these teams, New Zealand’s pack diminished Pocock’s influence with tactics shown here . This week there will have been importance placed on not getting isolated, cleaning out of rucks being precise and not getting caught deep in own territory…but then again that would likely be the same before most of their games. There were plenty of kicks from New Zealand early on against Australia in the Auckland match and against South Africa and with Folau not looking at his best, similar could be seen in this contest.

In matches between these teams since 2012, New Zealand average 24 kicks a game to 17 by Australia, with 140 passes and 100 runs for 435m compared to 146 passes and 112 runs for 363m by the Wallabies. The All Blacks average 8 clean breaks, 16 defenders beaten and 11 offloads in this period compared to 4,17 and 9 by Australia. Both teams average 11 penalties a game, with Australia conceding an average of 18 turnovers to 13 by New Zealand.

New Zealand have led at halftime in 10 of their previous 20 matches against Tier 1 teams, but outscored them 2nd half in 17/20 games. Having learnt from the failed 2007 campaign, they have built a reputation of being a composed side that back their leaders to make the right calls under pressure. Then there is faith that the team have the skills to execute accurately.

Breaking down the scoring patterns in the matches between these finalists since 2013 into quarters, the All Blacks have outscored Australia by 6 to 5, 11 to 5, 10 to 5 and then the Wallabies have the advantage in the final 20 minutes by 8 to 7.

In the last four matches played in New Zealand, the All Blacks have outscored Australia by a total of 111 to 26 points from the 21st to 60th minute. Whereas in the last three games played in Australia, it is a total of 34 to 25 to the hosts in the second and third quarters.

Unlike South Africa, Australia have been able to score late points against New Zealand and under Cheika there has been a focus on ‘finishing’ games. They’ve scored the first try in just 2 of the 8 games against the All Blacks since 2012, but the last try in 5 of them.

Steve Hansen’s team have tended to perform better against teams in the second half, for example in their last 8 games against South Africa they average a difference of -0.3 at halftime and 8 after the break. Against Argentina it is 8 points at halftime and 11.8 in the second half. However when facing Australia since 2012 it is 6 points first half and then 4.7 in second half.

Ignoring the games against USA and Uruguay, this year Australia average 4 points scored to 4 conceded in the first quarter, 7 to 4 in the second, 5 to 8 in the third and 10 to 3 in the fourth.

Scotland have been the only team to score more than 3 points against Australia in the opening twenty minutes this year, while they kept opponents to 0 points in the final quarter in 7/11 games – the exceptions being England (3 points), Scotland (10), New Zealand (7 and 5). The Wallabies have scored a try in the final ten minutes in 8 of their 11 games so far (not against Fiji, Wales or Scotland).

New Zealand average an advantage of 8-3, 8-4, 11-4 and 10-4 through the quarters this year though if just looking at their games against Rugby Championship opposition those averages are 5-3, 6-5, 12-5 and 6-6.

In the Sydney match between these teams the scoring patterns were 0-3 in the first quarter, 3-3 in the second, 7-8 in the third and 17-5 in the fourth.

The Eden Park game was 3-3 in the first twenty minutes, then 10-3 and 21-0 in the second and third quarters with the final twenty minutes being 7-7. It is true that three of the tries in the second half came in short succession when Quade Cooper had a yellow card and that only 8 of the starting Australian finalists began that match.

Also of relevance was that the referee was Nigel Owens, who is the official for this final. After beating South Africa in the semi-final, New Zealand’s Grant Fox said they had been aware that Nigel Owens would referee the final. Fox praised the referee and stated that he let the breakdown ‘breathe’.

New Zealand have won 13 matches in a row with Owens in charge and 15 of 17 since 2007, so it is understandable why they’d be happy with his appointment.

Since 2012, New Zealand have won their 10 matches with Owens as referee by an average score of 32-15, compared to 8 wins and a draw at an average score of 38-20 with Craig Joubert, 6 wins and a draw by 29-17 with Jaco Peyper and 3 wins from 5 matches at 25-20 with Wayne Barnes.

The Wallabies have won only 3 of their 9 matches with Owens in charge since 2012, by an average score of 15-25. With Craig Joubert it is 8 wins and a draw from 12 matches by 27-25 and with Jaco Peyper 3 wins and a draw from 6 matches by 23-14. Their preferable official would probably have been Wayne Barnes , as they’ve won 13 matches in a row with him and the 6 since 2012 by 26-15.

Looking at Australia’s penalty count compared to their opponent with the above referees it is 11 to 11 with Joubert and Peyper. With Owens it is an average of 11 Australian penalties conceded to 8.5 by their opposition. It is worth noting though that with Barnes, the count is 12 to 9.

Australia seemed to have real problems with Owens in 2014 – they lost 28-10 in Cape Town with a penalty count of 13 to 4 and then the next week 21-17 in Mendoza with 2 cards and a penalty count of 16 to 8. As then captain Michael Hooper was leaving the field after receiving a yellow card, he was told “I’ve asked for discipline and you are not listening”.

Looking at nine previous finals refereed by Owens in the Pro 12 and European competitions, the average score has been 27-14. In the Pro 12, an average Owens game (sample of 28 matches going back to 2013/14 season) had an average score of 24-17. Heineken Cup it is 23-13 (last 55 games) and at test level 31-14, which becomes 28-16 when just looking at matches featuring Tier 1 teams.

The team with an extra day to prepare has lost 5 of the previous 7 World Cup finals while the higher ranked team (pre-tournament) has 11 of the previous 13 knockout games and 20/27 since 2003.

This round has seen an average of 29 total points scored (12.4 in first half / 16.6 in second). The halftime scores have been 9-0, 9-0, 9-6, 12-6, 14-5, 9-3 and 5-0 with each winning side ahead at the break. Only three of the victors also outscored their opponent in the second half – New Zealand in 1987, Australia in 1999 and South Africa in 2007. The try total in previous finals has been 4,1,0,2,2,0 and 2.

Ashley-Cooper is making his 13 consecutive start against this opponent since the 2011 semi-final and Hooper will have started 11 games in that period. Folau will be on 9 and Moore, Kepu 8 but there are also a third of the team that will started 3 or less matches against the All Blacks in four years.

AUS xv vs NZ 2011-2015

Read will have started all 13 matches against Australia since the previous World Cup, with A Smith, McCaw and Whitelock 12, O Franks 11, Nonu 10, Savea and C Smith 9 and Retallick 8.

NZ xv vs AUS 2011-2015

Australia may have won only one of the last 12 games against New Zealand, but that victory came recently and with a team closely resembling the one named for this final.

Unlike most of those previous matches they aren’t approaching this one with an unhappy squad nor having to fend off criticism of the coach, tactics or poor form. There isn’t the distraction that Cooper vs New Zealand usually brings, nor the concern about having to play at Eden Park. Rather than looking back at previous results, this squad can be motivated by the idea that this team might not have peaked yet.

Foley’s goal kicking dropping to 57% and 67% in the knockout matches might be a concern and the point that the Wallabies are conceding around 70% of their penalties in their own half (according to Fox Sports) this tournament. They did have a tougher group to come through than New Zealand and will be hoping that key players that have missed games such as Sio, Pocock and Folau can last. The power of the All Blacks bench and their ability to disrupt the lineout (Read with 6 steals, Retallick with 5) could prove the difference.

New Zealand to win by 1-12 points is 2.62

Nonu has 10 tries in 23 games vs Australia and is 5.0 anytime scorer, Mitchell has 5 tries in 14 games vs New Zealand and is 4.5.

New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Dean Mumm, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Kurtley Beale.