Australia have received a major fitness boost ahead of their attempts to dethrone New Zealand in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final on Saturday. Influential prop Scott Sio, who was a major doubt after missing Australia’s semifinal win over Argentina with a bruised elbow, has returned to the team in place of James Slipper in the only change to the lineup named by coach Michel Cheika. It means backs Israel Folau and Matt Giteau will also start the final despite being taken off in the second half against Argentina.

That Australia are at full-strength is a huge bonus heading into a meeting with the defending champions and favorites to become the first country ever to retain their crown. That is especially true given the bruising route the Wallabies have taken to the final. Drawn in the toughest Pool in World Cup history, Australia beat England and Wales on consecutive weekends before enduring a real scare against Scotland in the quarterfinals. In the last four, Australia were given a tough test by Argentina, too, despite the 29-15 margin of victory. It was a match where Sio’s strength in the front row was missed as Australia gave away four penalties in the scrum.

Folau’s influence has not been felt nearly as much so far in this competition. The fullback scored 17 tries in his first 26 Tests after transferring to rugby union, but has scored just one in his last 11 appearances, and none to date in the World Cup. Those struggles have led to some pointed criticism from the media in New Zealand, with suggestions that he was the weak link in Australia’s lineup. Yet speaking earlier this week, Cheika put Folau’s recent form down to a troublesome ankle injury, and was convinced he is now ready to deliver.

“I never doubt that bloke. Never,” he said, according to Fox Sports Australia. “You know what I mean?” If they write that, put it in a headline. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating on Saturday.

“I think before he got his injury [against Wales] he was in good form, he was carrying the ball really well. The injury bothered him a bit, he missed a game and then played yesterday [against Argentina] with that injury but on the improve. He felt good enough to be able to do his job and I think he’s only going to get better after that.”

At London’s Twickenham Stadium on Saturday, Folau and Australia will come up against the biggest test in rugby. New Zealand have sat atop the World Rugby rankings for the last six years and have lost just three times since winning the World Cup on home soil four years ago. And the All Blacks, who like Australia are going for an unprecedented third World Cup title, have been able to name an unchanged lineup for the final.

It is a team that is brimming with experience. Indeed, the match-day 23 named by coach Steve Hansen contains eight players who took part in the 2011 final and a total of 1,339 Test caps. Included among those is captain Richie McCaw, who has refused to confirm that appearance 148 on Saturday will be his last, and Dan Carter, the top points scorer in the history of international rugby who will be retiring after the final. Hansen, who led the All Blacks to a 20-18 victory over South Africa in the semifinals, expects his team’s experience to be a major positive at Twickenham.

“It doesn't matter what you do in life, experience is massive,” he said, reports the New Zealand Herald. “There are two types of experience -- the ones you learn from and the ones you don't -- so hopefully we've learned enough. When you have got experience, and that experience is in good form, I think it is a big advantage.”

Confirmed starting XVs


1. Scott Sio

2. Stephen Moore (c)

3. Sekope Kepu

4. Kane Douglas

5. Rob Simmons

6. Scott Fardy

7. Michael Hooper

8. David Pocock

9. Will Genia

10. Bernard Foley

11. Drew Mitchell

12. Matt Giteau

13. Tevita Kuridrani

14. Adam Ashley-Cooper

15. Israel Folau

New Zealand

1. Joe Moody

2. Dan Coles

3. Owen Franks

4. Brodie Retallick

5. Samuel Whitelock

6. Jerome Kaino

7. Richie McCaw (c)

8. Kieran Read

9. Aaron Smith

10. Dan Carter

11. Julian Savea

12. Ma’a Nonu

13. Conrad Smith

14. Nehe Milner-Skudder

15. Ben Smith

Prediction: Amazingly this will be the first ever World Cup final between the two rugby powerhouses. And, with New Zealand and Australia the two outstanding teams of this tournament, it should be a thriller. Australia have confounded the doubters to show that they can be a force in the scrum, and, with Sio back, they should be capable of at least holding their own against the All Blacks. Australia also have the quality in their backs to swing the contest in their favor, but the experience and quality of New Zealand may just see them come out on top in a nail-biting finish.

Winner: New Zealand