I appreciate that history counts for nothing if you are looking for a winner, but I’m sure it creates some interest as the Wallabies and the All Blacks do value their legacy and try to add to that during their time.
Incredibly they only played each other once in the first four World Cups, Australia winning a semi-final in Dublin in 1991. Then in 2003 Australia did the same in Sydney. Both teams left the tournament at the quarter-final stage in 2007 and New Zealand reversed the trend in the 2011 semi-final in Auckland. Those three semi-final meetings are cornerstones of the rugby history of the two teams ranked one and two in the world.
Australia won the World Cup in 1991, as did New Zealand in 2011 and you may remember England pipped Australia in the 2003 final with an extra-time Jonny Wilkinson drop goal. So this is the first time they have played each other in a final. Both teams will be trying to become the first team to win the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time and the All Blacks the first side to retain it.
The first reaction after reaching the final will have been relief that a tricky hurdle had been jumped: “we have survived, we have a chance now to be world champions”. Then it will have been about recovery from the physical exhaustion accumulated through training and games over the past six weeks and going through the weekly ritual to prepare for the contest on Saturday. The correct recovery is massively important and it starts immediately after the completion of the semi-final, often taking players until Wednesday after a Saturday game to feel relatively normal again. The All Blacks, being ranked No1, have the advantage of an extra day to recover and prepare.
Matt Giteau was in the final in 2003. Richie McCaw and 10 other All Blacks were involved in the final in 2011 but this is the biggest game ever for these teams. The week will have been cerebral rather than physical, ensuring that the 23 players in each team have total clarity on unit and individual roles and have a full tank going into the game.
The ritual involves finalising the game plan both in attack and defence based on the analysis from previous encounters between the two teams and any other strengths and weaknesses observed during the tournament. Each individual player will have taken some time to view his own game and his opponent’s to sharpen his mind to what he needs to win the individual contest. Then it is about rehearsal, practising what is required as an individual; as a unit, backs and forwards, and as a team.
It is important each step is done methodically and that nobody gets ahead of themselves and loses focus because of the importance and the emotion of the occasion. The plan will have been for the coaches to have all this covered early in the week and then for the captain and senior players to take ownership and rehearse and execute the plan with intensity and accuracy two days prior to the game.
Also it is important absolutely nothing distracts from this focus. For example there will be a number of the senior players playing their last game for New Zealand, icons like Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Daniel Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, and it is disappointing that Tony Woodcock is not there. They are outstanding people who have been the backbone of the All Blacks for more than a decade. That won’t have been mentioned because it is a distraction from the focus of the build-up and the team always comes first. And these senior players will drive that focus. The Wallabies will do similar with the likes of Adam Ashley-Cooper, Will Genia and Giteau.
Then there is game day. I used to dread the wait, wide awake at 4.30am and the match didn’t start until 8pm: more than 15 hours to go and absolutely nothing to do apart from a walk-through for the team for 30 minutes around four hours before kick-off.
The players do their own thing and will have an individual game-day ritual. I used to have a three-hour walk with my wife Raewyn on the morning of a match. In 2011 I spent the night at home prior to the final and then we walked around the waterfront in Auckland; people were looking at me thinking why isn’t he with the team, but there is nothing you can do but wait and you are only a phone call away.
Early in my time as All Black coach I used to give the players a team talk prior to the team getting on the bus to go to the game. I had given a team talk prior to every game in my previous 30-plus years of coaching. Tana Umaga, the captain of the All Blacks during a tour of Europe in 2005, said to me: “Do you want a coffee, Ted?” I replied: “OK, T.” He went straight in: “Why do you give those team talks?” I didn’t like the way the conversation was trending.
“Well I think they may give the guys a little direction and a little inspiration.” His reply was abrupt: “Are they for you or for us?”
I was depressed for a week; I thought I was good at it, self-assessment of course! I discussed the value of the team talk with my fellow coaches Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith; they were noncommittal, probably being sensitive. I, and I assume Steve Hansen too, have not given a team talk since, all part of the evolving process. Tana was right and he was obviously passing on the message of the team. It is their time, they have to prepare mentally for the game and they don’t need the distraction of the coach telling them what they already know two hours prior to the kick-off.
Then, the game. Well, I’m pleased that Nigel Owens is the referee. He is the man in form with the whistle, he is relaxed, has got a good feel for the game and relates well to the players.
I hope he won’t be too distracted by the TMO and assistant referees and will let the teams decide who will win the Rugby World Cup. The two sides have only lost one game each this year. The Wallabies beat the All Blacks in Sydney to win the Rugby Championship but the All Blacks recovered to win the return fixture in Auckland a week later and retain the Bledisloe Cup. One-all, but it does not come any bigger than this, the Webb Ellis Cup and the title of world champions.