Two heavyweights of the sport line up across from one another, the seemingly invincible defending champion on one side. On the other side stands the challenger, refusing to call address his opponent with his chosen name, having risen from the depths of despair. Soon it becomes obvious that the challenger is outmatched and the champion cruises to victory, toying with the upstart along the way. It’s the 22nd of November 1965 and Muhammed Ali punished former champion Floyd Patterson along the way to defending his title. Almost 50 years on, can the All Blacks emulate ‘the Greatest’ and repeat his trick?
The Phoney War
Over the last few days, every man and his dog have crowned the breakdown as where this game will be decided and anointed the Australian combination of Pocock and Hooper as the difference. The truth is that the breakdown will be important but the performance of the backrows won’t be the key to victory (in the game itself or at the breakdown) and neither will the “Pooper”. Rucks aren’t the only source of turnover ball, and knock-ons, lineout steals, or turning over a maul can provide just as much of an attacking platform.
The great myth of the Wallabies is that they play with two openside flankers. They don’t – what they do differently is play their openside flanker at 8 and play a faster, smaller 6/8 at 7 and a traditional 6/8 at 6. The reality is that while Pocock is the preeminent fetcher in the world, Hooper isn’t strong over the ball and gets blown away from the breakdown far too often without slowing the ball down, let alone turning the ball over. Liam Gill is a much more accomplished option than Hooper if Michael Cheika wanted to play with two genuine fetchers in his back row but Hooper’s aggression and speed lets Cheika give Hooper the responsibility of chopping down ball carriers behind the gainline so that Pocock can come in on a dominant tackle to steal the ball away while the clearout focuses on Hooper to begin with. The dominant tackle is an important ingredient here – without it, the defensive line is bent and Pocock has to run back around the ruck and slow down before coming through the gate and competing. With a dominant tackle, Pocock can rush up in a straight line and arrive at the breakdown with speed before latching onto the ball. In 2011, the All Blacks eliminated Pocock as a threat by making him make the initial tackle and leaving him lying at the bottom of the ruck, unable to compete. On the face of it, playing Hooper prevents the All Blacks from using this ploy in the final but if Hooper and his teammates can’t make dominant tackles, the All Blacks will target quick clearouts before Pocock arrives, giving them the chance to run the ball at him around the fringes of the ruck.
As for stealing the ball at the ruck, the All Blacks back row fares well in a straight comparison with their feted counterparts. Despite making fewer tackles as a team than the Wallabies and therefore having fewer rucks to steal the ball at, the All Blacks’ backrowers have combined for 18 ruck turnovers whereas their Wallabies’ counterparts have stolen the ball in the tackle area 21 times. Although there has been a lot of focus on the backrowers’ role at the rucks, it’s important to remember that every player can, and should, compete for the ball at the breakdown. It’s here that the All Blacks come into their own, accumulating 50 turnovers at rucks compared to 37 for Australia. When you look at it this way, the All Blacks are statistically stronger at the breakdown than Australia, with an average of 2 more steals per game and even more so when you take into account Australia making more tackles and having more rucks to contest. Unfortunately for the Wallabies, looking at other types of turnovers doesn’t paint any prettier a picture. Although the All Blacks have knocked the ball on more than Australia (New Zealand have also knocked the ball on less as the tournament has progressed into the knockout stages), they have committed handling errors at a lower rate than the Wallabies.
Locking It Together
While a lot of the focus has been on the backrows, the locks have been overlooked. Kane Douglas has struggled to carry the ball with any effectiveness but has been a totem in defence while Rob Simmons has been showcasing more aggression than he usually does. As well as the Australian locks have been playing, it’s here that the All Blacks have a significant advantage in the forward packs. Whitelock and Retallick complement each other perfectly and produced sterling performances against South Africa’s own dynamic second row duo in the semi-final win. One of the most impressive facets of the win against South Africa was the way that they attacked the South African lineout down the stretch and turned a traditional Springbok strength into a weakness. Whitelock and Retallick, with help from Kieran Read, dominated the skies that day as they have done throughout the tournament so far.
While the Wallabies lineout has combined for 4 steals, the All Blacks have notched up 14. The All Blacks will try to continue these trends by putting pressure onto the Australian lineout – an area in which the Pooper considerably weakens the Wallabies. Until now, Hooper has been good for around one (non-jumping) catch per game at the lineout and Pocock has not caught the ball at the lineout so far. Selecting Pocock and Hooper together gives the Wallabies only 2 consistent lineout options until Dean Mumm comes on. Kane Douglas has averaged less than 1 lineout catch per game so the responsibility for winning lineout ball rests firmly on Rob Simmons and Scott Fardy. The All Blacks, regardless of the combination they play in the back 5 of their forward pack, will have 5 capable jumpers on their own lineout ball and several options to attack the Wallabies’ throws. While Sam Whitelock has ran the lineout well he only has the solitary, albeit critical, steal so far but both Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read are averaging more than a steal a game up to this point. The combination of having fewer jumpers and the All Blacks potent defensive lineout could prove as dangerous for the Wallabies as Pocock’s pilfering could to the All Blacks. The Wallabies may try to counter this with shortened lineouts but expect the All Blacks to put them under extreme pressure by double marking Simmons with Retallick and Whitelock while Read covers Fardy. The end result is that it’ll be more difficult for the Wallabies to set up their driving maul or secure attacking ball from the back and even middle of the lineout while at the same time making it easier for the All Blacks to secure their own ball from the back of the lineout.
Aside from their core roles in the set piece and in defence, Retallick and Whitelock have added dynamism in attack. Whitelock has used his underrated agility to beat first up tackles and shift the line consistently, beating 8 defenders so far while Retallick has found a good balance between his hard running game and his link role in the backline with an almost 50-50 split between his carries into contact and passes. With this ability in their forward pack, the All Blacks can lure the Australian forwards out of the defensive line and make ground after subtly shifting the point of attack. This will get them past the gainline and make it much more difficult for the Australians to affect the quality of ball that Aaron Smith gets at the breakdown.
Looking Past The Narrative
Somewhat strangely, there has been a narrative that after an impressive performance in defeating the All Blacks in Sydney, the Wallabies held back in the second Bledisloe Cup match, a 41-13 loss in Auckland, a week later and that the first match is the one that conclusions should be drawn from while the second match is largely irrelevant. Pocock and Hooper not starting together and Quade Cooper starting at fly-half are cited as the reasons why we shouldn’t draw conclusions from the second game but this completely ignores the context of the game. In the first game, in which the All Blacks were well below their usual standards, both Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley played badly as the starting halves combination. Quade Cooper started the following week because there were legitimate concerns over Foley’s performance and whether Cooper should be the starter going into the World Cup. Equally, Nic White started the second game after producing a match winning cameo in Sydney and Matt Toomua started in the 12 jersey after turning the tide in the first game with his introduction off the bench. James Horwill started both games after an impressive showing in the first game and Skelton was yet another player who started the second game after a big contribution to Australia’s win the week before. While Pocock did not start the second match, he played 5 minutes of the first half (as a head injury replacement for Hooper) before playing the whole second half, which started with New Zealand leading 13-6, in tandem with Hooper. The more you look at the context of the games and how they unfolded, the more you realise the uncomfortable truth that just as many, if not more, valid conclusions about the final can be reached from the second game as the first.
Firstly, Aaron Smith is unlikely to play as badly as he did in the first test and is much more likely to reach the performance levels he did in the second (a level that he has maintained since then). Similarly, Dan Carter has also come into good form after an indifferent start where he lacked the confidence to take the ball to the line. It also looks like the Wallabies did Carter a favour in the first match by having Ashley-Cooper put heavy pressure on his conversions after noticing the delay between Carter making his initial move and striking the ball. Other teams have since tried to replicate this tactic but Carter has reworked his technique by staying stationary for slightly longer and moving through his kicking motion faster. In fairness, Foley and Phipps are unlikely to play as badly as they did in the first test either, but they have consistently shown that they can be flustered when under pressure, especially when playing together. Another parallel that matches the final closer to the second test is that Australia will begin the final with two premier lineout options, rather than the three (Fardy, Horwill and Mumm) in Australia’s win.
Selection wise, neither Rob Simmons nor Will Genia played in either match. While Simmons has recently shown some of the aggression he has previously lacked, it is difficult to imagine him matching the All Blacks forwards for physicality, putting more pressure on Douglas to win the battle up front. Horwill, who could have provided some of that grunt, wasn’t selected. While Genia is Australia’s most experienced scrum half, his style of play is closer to White’s than it is to Phipps and while Phipps can accelerate the game with the speed of his service, the benefits of selecting him are cancelled out by the inaccuracy of his passing. Coming off the bench in the first test, White offered an eye for a gap, a long range penalty kicker, and a defensive kicking option with his big clearances from the base of a ruck. In tight games, White is a player that Australia can rely on to pull them through while under pressure whereas Phipps is more likely to funnel the pressure onto the rest of the team with his helter-skelter game.
The biggest selection difference between the first test and the final will be Ma’a Nonu. Nonu, who missed the first test in which Sonny Bill Williams lined up at 12, played a starring role a week later and seems to reserve his best games for trans-Tasman matchups. While Williams is a powerful runner, against Matt Giteau he made it easier for a smaller man to tackle him by trying to shift his feet before contact to allow him to free his arms for an offload (a good tactic against bigger, less agile defenders). An agile and experienced defender like Giteau knew he could match Williams’s footwork and alter his body position so that Sonny Bill couldn’t find his weaker shoulder and, in doing so, was successful in limiting the league convert’s offloading game (SBW managed 1 offload in his time on the pitch). While Williams’s passing game and running lines have come on leaps and bounds since he first played rugby, Nonu’s brings a different kind of threat. Defenders, aware of his long passing game, tend to panic any time Nonu has numbers outside him. Outside defenders are tempted to drift inwards out of fear of Nonu running through a one-on-one tackle but time and time again, Nonu has shown that he knows a few different ways to skin a cat. In the second Bledisloe test, Nonu floated a brilliantly timed pass for a wide open Conrad Smith to canter to the try line and last week Nonu showed poise against two physical defenders with a subtle half step to commit the de Allende on the inside before running an angled line to commit JP Pietersen on the outside and finally playing a soft pass for Barrett to cross over untouched. Ordinarily, defence coaches would counter this with strict instructions for their defenders to stick with the runner in their channel. With Nonu’s ability to break through a one-on-one tackle or fix a defender before attacking a different line, this is a dangerous strategy and I don’t think that Australia have an adequate way to deal with Nonu when he is in space with numbers outside without getting a numbers advantage on that side.
The Real Breakdown
The most crucial aspect of this game though, is Australia’s defensive system. Australia will lose this match if they defend the way they did against Wales, Scotland, and Argentina. While they were valiant in holding off Wales with two less players from 5 metres out from their own try line, the All Blacks are much more clinical from that kind of position and they will have noted the way that they fell into a pattern committing a number of infringements in a short period of time in the passage of play leading up to the Welsh self-destruction with interest – especially the sequence which saw Genia tackle a player taking a tap penalty before getting 10 metres back. Genia committed a similar infringement in the semi-final against Argentina last week and the All Blacks might try to lure him into a similar mistake on Saturday, especially considering how dangerous a runner Aaron Smith can be.
Against Scotland, the Wallabies showed sloppiness in defence and served up points on a platter when the Scots put them under pressure but Scotland left points on the table where a better side would have capitalised. Against Argentina, the Australian line was broken often only for the Argentine support play to fail or for a strong Australian cover effort and a pressure relieving turnover. If there are similar lapses against the All Blacks, they’ll be punished. Once they’ve made a half break, the All Blacks are the most clinical team in the world when it comes to running the right support lines, making the right decisions, and finishing half chances. Much as the Wallabies will try to get their shifty runners like Mitchell and Folau (although Folau’s effectiveness is in doubt due to his troublesome ankle injury) on the ball with a mismatch against an All Black front rower, the All Blacks will look to get their back 3 on the ball as much as possible. As dangerous as Ben Smith and Folau are, Milner-Skudder, who has had success in both his games against Australia so far, offers a game-breaking threat every time he touches the ball. So far in this tournament, he has scored a try on every 3.5 carries and has made a clean break every 1.7 carries. With his ability to seemingly beat the first defender every time he touches the ball as a formality and his knack for finding a teammate with an offload in a tackle, getting the ball to him while marked by a forward will be the equivalent of tossing a stick of dynamite into a small crack and turning it into a chasm. It’s not all doom and gloom on this front for Australia though – all three of their outside backs have experience of playing at full back and are solid (exceptional in Folau’s case) in the air. If Australia can isolate someone like Folau against Milner-Skudder with a penalty advantage, expect them to go for a cross kick that you can expect a fit, running Folau to collect almost every single time.
Not calling them the All Blacks didn’t end pleasantly for Clive Woodward in 2005 towards the start of the McCaw-Carter era and as we edge closer to their final act, I can’t see it ending any better for Cheika either. The bottom line is that this game isn’t between two teams that are as close as they have been made out to be. Australia can win against this All Blacks team but will have to master much more than just the breakdown to do so. They’ll have to defend valiantly and shut down the half breaks they have allowed so often in this tournament. They’ll have to rule the lineout and win the playmaking battle with an outmatched pair in the halves. They’ll have to overcome one of the most well rounded and accomplished teams ever to play the game, and without the All Blacks having an unprecedented (for this team) shocker, I suspect they won’t be able to. Half a century ago, the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time romped to an emphatic win as he dominated a brave but outgunned opponent from start to finish. Come 6pm on Halloween, we’ll likely be looking back on a similar result. After all, ringside reporters that night could hear Ali’s rhythmic chant: “What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name?”