Argentina, like South Africa, were knocked out of the World Cup after failing to score a try in their semi-final. The difference was they tried, running from deep in the opening minute and still doing so in the final one. When this World Cup starts to fade from the memory, the impact made by the Pumas, and before them Japan (not to forget Fiji), will remain. The imprint is indelible.
Looking back at clippings taken from matches in the autumn and Six Nations in recent years reveals a common theme, coaches saying that the modern game at the highest level revolved around defence and that size was an imperative. The right to go wide had to be earned, running from your own territory was hazardous and the battle to be won was in the air. The subtext was either that the skills of players were not trusted or that they did not have the ability to play an expansive game, a theory exploded on the final day of the Six Nations in March when an orgy of running rugby broke out, a release of everything that had been suppressed.
It is fitting that, in the home of the Six Nations, the conservative championship, the radical approach of Argentina and Japan chimed. They may both, ultimately, have failed, the Pumas missing out on the final and Fiji finishing third in their group but they not so much broke the mould as exposed the mould that was encrusting parts of the game.
It is apposite, therefore, that the final will be contested between two teams who have long based their game on movement and, in New Zealand’s case, doing so while taking care of the basics. Australia for years used the scrum as a means of exploring what they could get away with, but now they are more competitive there, at least when Scott Sio is at loose-head prop. Saturday will not be decided in the set-pieces but at the breakdown, where Richie McCaw, in probably his final Test appearance, will wrestle with arguably the most influential player of the tournament, David Pocock, and behind, where it will be a contest of power and pace.
British rugby has long been lamented as a breeding ground for gym monkeys. The former Ireland and Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll said a year ago he feared that skills were being suppressed by the battle for bulging biceps, questioning whether New Zealand players spent as long in the gym. “It should be about rugby players becoming athletes, not athletes becoming rugby players,” he said. “In the academies in Ireland, there is a huge focus on the weights room, as opposed to whether players can throw a 10-metre pass on the run. In New Zealand, they focus way more on skills from an early age.”
Two of the tries in the semi-finals were scored in the same left-hand corner. On Saturday, Ma’a Nonu, not the least physical centre on the planet, had a two-on-two in the second half as New Zealand looked to regain the lead against South Africa. He drew the defenders, leaving them unsure whether he was going to run for the line or pass to Beauden Barrett outside him, and when the point came where JP Pietersen, in a similar spot to Alex Cuthbert the previous week, had to make a decision on the right wing and made for the ball-carrier, he sent the ball to Barrett, who only had to catch it to score.
The following day, Australia were attacking against Argentina and as the Pumas rushed up in defence, the Wallabies’ inside centre, Matt Giteau, floated a pass longer than 10 metres over the heads of the would-be tacklers and into the hands of Adam Ashley-Cooper, whose second try was hand-delivered. How many times is that type of chance squandered in Europe because the ball-carrier takes contact?
Argentina, for all their desire, lacked poise under pressure. They were accused of being naive, running the ball against Australia from deep from the off, but that has become their way. Their failure ultimately was less down to the two early tries they conceded through their own mistakes but the number of clean breaks that died either through a lack of support or because the final pass was not out of the hands of a Nonu or a Giteau.
There has not been a World Cup final that has been memorable for the quality of rugby produced by both sides: there have been some gripping finishes, 1995 and2003, and close contests, 1991, 2007 and 2011, but the occasion has tended to be the winner. The eighth World Cup final may be different, not least because of the attacking intent of the two sides involved and a referee, Nigel Owens, who tunes into the wavelength of the players. The breakdown will be key and Owens likes to give defending teams more than a nanosecond to contest for possession.
That means New Zealand will have to find a way of neutralising Pocock and Michael Hooper that eluded them when the two sides met in the Rugby Championship in Sydney in August. McCaw admitted in an interview with the Observer last month that they had been overrun by the pair who were starting a Test together for the first time. The All Blacks will have a plan on Saturday having been surprised in that area by South Africa last weekend.
What makes any contest between Australia and New Zealand fascinating is that they are two teams whose thought is not confined to the training ground and moves that are rehearsed ad nauseam. Their players are athletes and no less strong than their European counterparts, but they are rugby players who would not be unrecognisable to previous generations. Japan may have gone home and Argentina may be playing for bronze in Stratford on Friday night, but their spirit lives on in teams who are a little more streetwise. It should provide a fitting finale to a tournament that, in a rugby sense, has not been like any other.
• This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email, to subscribe just visit this page, find ‘The Breakdown’ and follow the instructions