Rugby World Cup 2015

Aussie back rows key in final: Elsom

David Pocock (left), who claimed 14 turnovers in four World Cup games, will be vital if Australia's back-row is to be effective against the All Blacks.
David Pocock (above), who claimed 14 turnovers in four World Cup games, will be vital if Australia's back-row is to be effective against the All Blacks.

LONDON • Four years ago, David Pocock played a key role in Australia's ultimately unsuccessful World Cup campaign in New Zealand.

Packing down alongside Pocock in the back-row against the All Blacks in a semi-final at Eden Park was Rocky Elsom. The 2011 World Cup was Elsom's swansong in international rugby.

But the forward has been impressed by the rise of his old team at this tournament and the resurgence of his former flank partner, Pocock.

Pocock's star has risen at this World Cup as the Wallabies have shone en route to the final.

The No. 8 has claimed 14 turnovers in four games, five more than Fiji's Leone Nakarawa, two tries and is ranked fourth-highest in the Australian team for tackles made.

Some pundits have anointed him as the heir to All Black Richie McCaw's mantle as the best flanker in the world. Elsom would go even further.

"David Pocock, he's the best player in the competition. If there's one player you want to avoid being around it's likely to be him," said the 32-year-old, who won 75 caps for Australia.

In his new position at the back of the scrum, Pocock has formed a lethal combination with Scott Fardy at blindside and Michael Hooper at openside.

The understanding between the three forwards has been a thing of beauty.

Between them, they have amassed a total of three tries, four offloads, 148 tackles, 21 turnovers and 87 carries.

In comparison the Kiwi triumvirate of Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and McCaw have recorded four tries, four offloads, 136 tackles, 18 turnovers and 122 carries.

Nearly identical numbers from both brilliant back-rows.

Elsom has been impressed with the contributions of both Fardy and Hooper.

"With Scott Fardy, as the tournament goes on he's been more and more effective," he says.

"Michael Hooper just keeps on going. He's probably had the most rugby of anyone in the tournament and having those three are a huge asset. "

However, it is Pocock's fearless breakdown play, his disregard for personal safety that has delighted Elsom the most: "There's a big difference between guys who get the hands on the ball at the breakdown and those who get their hands on the ball when it's a bit easier. He's the bloke that gets his hands on the ball every time he can. If you do that you're going to get hit really hard, but he just keeps doing it."

In modern rugby the contest at the breakdown is just as important, if not more, than any other facet of the game.

Those in the northern hemisphere are only just coming to realise this. Winning the ball means a fast and smooth attack, allowing you to build pressure with the ball in hand, while it also stops the opposition from getting a roll on and allows your defence time to set.

Time and time again Pocock and his back-row buddies have either stolen possession or slowed it down for the other team, helping the Wallabies go undefeated at this World Cup and have the best defence in the tournament.

Elsom also has own insight, his own shared history with Australia's coach Michael Cheika.

It was under Cheika in Ireland that Elsom played some of his best rugby, winning the Heineken Cup and being voted European Player of the Year in 2009. That season he won a string of man of the match awards in both Europe and the Magners League, quickly becoming a fan favourite at Leinster.

Cheika's impact on the Wallabies - from rebuilding the scrum, repairing the team culture, improving the style of player and securing on-field results in just a year - has been nothing short of amazing.

"One thing about Michael is he's an excellent motivator of players," he reveals. "You can't really realise how important that is until you experience it."

Elsom will be watching from the sidelines this round but predicts a worthy contest for the final.

"The two best teams in the tournament are in the final," he says. "The real test for the boys is this weekend, they're a far better team than anyone else in the competition. The guys in that (Australian) team, with the exception of maybe South Africa, they are a far better team than everyone that was in their group."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2015, with the headline 'Aussie back rows key in final: Elsom'. Print Edition | Subscribe