Rugby World Cup: Wallabies' European stints could be decisive in dream final

Australia's Adam Ashley-Cooper scoring against Argentina on Oct 25, 2015.
Australia's Adam Ashley-Cooper scoring against Argentina on Oct 25, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

After five weeks of top-quality rugby, the final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup beckons. What a sporting showcase this has been for those who love the game, and those new to it.

England have been tremendous hosts, and while their team might not have gone as far as their fans would have hoped, they embraced underdogs like Japan and Fiji and the tournament is all the better for it.

In Saturday's final, it's hard to refer to New Zealand as the underdogs. Statistically, there has been no better team in all of sport with the winning margin that they have.

They are a brand that crosses the divide, not easy for a sport that is still confused for Rugby League or American football sometimes.

They have an entire country behind them, and the storyline of the retiring heroes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Co. is hard to ignore. On the field, they have been spot-on tactically, although early on in the tournament, even their supporters were critical of them.

Sensing what works in the heat of battle is never easy, but with calm heads and such talent from number 1 to 23, they look like strong favourites to lift their third World Cup title and be the first to win back-to-back editions.

Under coach Steve Hansen, the All Blacks have transformed into the standard bearers for all things good with the sport. Their technical reading of the game was evident when they got out of jail against South Africa in the semi-finals.

Barbs and banter between Australia and New Zealand have been traded across every platform on social media this week.

Outsiders and much of the United Kingdom reckon that Australia were very lucky against both the Scots and Argentina. But more important to the people Down Under is the amazing transformation of the Wallabies in a matter of 12 months.

The team was a mess in 2014, with off field distractions in particular tearing the squad apart. With virtually the same playing personnel, the coaching staff of Wallaby great Stephen Larkham, Chris Malone and Mario Ledesma - led by head coach Michael Chieka - have certainly turned things around.

The backroom staff share 221 international test caps between them, including 37 World Cup games. As players, the coaches also won 81 per cent of their World Cup matches.

They also spent a large chunk of their playing and coaching careers in Europe, learning new tactics and playing philosophies which they brought back to Australia.

That counts for something. Australia is the only side to have won both World Cup titles away from home. Most notably, both triumphs in 1991 and 1999 were on UK soil.

In Malone, flyhalf Bernard Foley has a mentor who spent a number of years playing for English giants Bath and knows all too well what it is like playing big games at Twickenham.

Veterans Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell have spent the last few seasons in France and won a European title with Toulon, also at Twickenham last season. Mitchell was my man of the match in last week's semi-final and his desire to prove a point will make him very dangerous against the Kiwis.

So, will their European experiences prove telling? By no means is it the factor that divides both teams. Both teams had their fabled scrums tested in their respective semi-finals.

The All Blacks lost their first scrum of the tournament against South Africa and Australia looked to have returned to the bad old days of laughable scrummaging at times against Argentina.

The rattled Australian defence seemed to be scrambling at times to cover the quick Argentinian attack at times last weekend and, if not for star forward David Pocock's stellar scrambling, would have been found wanting. Up against an All Blacks attack that has options at every turn and the muscle to lay the platform, it does look like it is New Zealand's game to lose.

One must remember though, that no one is unbeatable. After all, the All Blacks themselves were labelled "chokers" back in 2011.

With the final (Oct 31, 11.45pm, FOX Sports 2, Singtel Ch 115 and StarHub Ch 209) set to be watched by millions across the globe and an expected full house of over 85,000 present at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday in either gold or black, all I can say is bring it on, and may the least-pressured team win.

The sport of rugby has certainly won over the last month. Unlike certain other sports, headlines have been made for the right reasons - from breathtaking tries to exciting comebacks to underdogs who refuse to quit.

Onwards and upwards to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Of course, that is after the final we have all been waiting for.

stsports@sph.com.sg

Note: Jonathan Leow, 35, was a Singapore national rugby player and previously coached the national Under-19 team. He also played for the University of Sydney and in the lower divisions in New Zealand. He is currently the vice-president of the Singapore Rugby Union and the organising committee chairman of the Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens.