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Sport24.co.za | Stage set for Rugby World Cup final



Steve Hansen (Gallo)

London – Never has the old cabbage patch
meant so much to so many so far away. Twickenham might be the spiritual home of
English rugby but on Saturday it is the setting for a World Cup final between
Australia and New Zealand.

For rugby fans the world over, it is a
match that has all the ingredients of a classic: two traditional powerhouses
with a long and acrimonious rivalry, both at the peak of their power, and
playing for the greatest prize in rugby.

As Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach
whose deadpan delivery can be as blunt as his team’s rolling mauls, dryly
noted: “You’ve got two sides who are like-minded and want to play
footy.”

Despite the early exit of the host-nation,
the 2015 World Rugby has been universally acclaimed as the finest ever,
attracting record ticket sales of over 2.4 million (pounds), unprecedented
worldwide television viewing and generating record profits of 160 million
pounds ($247 million).

From the moment Japan upset South Africa in
the opening round, this has been a competition full of unrelenting drama and
rugby of the highest order, and fittingly the two best teams are through to the
final.

Australia (1991 and 1999) and New Zealand
(1987 and 2011) have already won the World Cup twice each but this is the first
time the two southern hemisphere giants have squared off in the decider.

As always, New Zealand are the favourites.
For 24 years, the All Blacks were branded as chokers after slipping up at five
successive World Cups but they rid themselves of the cruellest name in sport by
winning four years ago and are an even better, more ruthless team now, losing
just three of the 53 matches they have played since the last World Cup.

Led by their inspiring captain Richie
McCaw, they sailed into the last four with consummate ease then showed they had
the stomach for a fight when they held off South Africa 20-18 in the
semi-finals.

No player has been under more scrutiny in
the build-up to Saturday’s match than openside flank McCaw, who has not made
any announcements about his future but is expected to retire sometime after the
tournament.

McCaw’s team-mates Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu,
Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock have all already revealed they
will be retiring from international rugby after the final whistle, adding a
sense of poignancy to a country where rugby is a national obsession.

“When you grow up, you want to be an
All Black,” McCaw said. “And you have to add to what has gone before
you.

The Wallabies have battled their way to the
final the hard way. In disarray a year ago, their new coach Michael Cheika has
transformed a divided team that was regularly losing matches to the cusp of
greatness.

Faced with the toughest pool in World Cup
history, the Wallabies knocked out the hosts England then beat Wales to top
their group, won a heart-stopping last-minute thriller against Scotland then
saw off Argentina 29-15 in the semis.

In a sport that was once the domain of
private schoolboys and beer-drinking university students, the Wallabies are
also changing people’s perceptions with their unlikely band of endearing
misfits.

No one personifies the eclectic make-up of
the Wallabies more than Cheika himself. The son of a Lebanese migrant, Cheika
worked for years in the women’s fashion industry, running a multimillion-dollar
business, and speaks several languages, including Arabic, French and Italian.

“We’re not all guys who are camped out
by the billabong with a cork hat,” he explained.

With a dynamic backline able to score tries
from anywhere, a watertight defence and a goal kicker with nerves of steel in
Bernard Foley, the Wallabies have all the working parts to beat the mighty All
Blacks.

In number eight David Pocock, they also
have a spiritual leader, an environmentalist, charity worker and advocate for
gay marriages off the field, his blackened eyes and swollen broken nose from
the on-field battering he has taken is testament to Australia’s willingness to
sacrifice their bodies for the cause.

“Nothing binds a team together
mentally more than working hard, sweating a little, spilling a bit of blood
together,” Cheika said.

While Twickenham is a guaranteed a sell-out
and London will embrace the final by showing the match on giant screens in
Trafalgar Square and bars all over the English capital, nowhere is the sense of
anticipation greater than Down Under.

Both former British colonies, Australia and
New Zealand are the best of friends and the worst of enemies, but these are
unprecedented times.

Their soldiers have fought and died
alongside each other at wars, they are the first to help each other in times of
trouble, and they have a free trade agreement since 1983.

But they are also great rivals. Like
siblings, the two Pacific nations are constantly bickering and trying to outdo
each other and nowhere is this more obvious than in sport.

Both nations are already on tenterhooks,
with millions of people expected to wake in the middle of the night to watch
the match live. Although the winner will be entitled to years of bragging
rights, it’s the fear of losing that is causing most palpitations on both sides
of the Tasman Sea.

They have been trading friendly insults all
week with the heads of states and national airlines from both countries making
bets on the outcome where the loser has to wear the winner’s colours to work.

“It will be a fantastic occasion, with
both teams prepared to die for cause,” Carter said. “What’s happened
in the past is irrelevant.”













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