Two of the powerhouse of rugby will face off for the first time in a World Cup final on Saturday, with New Zealand and Australia vying to become the most successful team in the history of the completion. The neighboring rivals have, along with South Africa, each won the quadrennial event, which began in 1987, twice. And, as well as chasing title number three, the All Blacks will also be aiming to make history by becoming the first team to ever retain the trophy. London’s Twickenham Stadium is set to play host to a monumental occasion.
It is New Zealand that go into the match as favorites, having sat atop the World Rugby rankings for the past six years and losing just three times since winning the Rugby World Cup on home soil in 2011. Coached by Steve Hansen, assistant coach in 2011, they breezed through the early rounds of this competition, topping their Pool before emphatically dismissing France in the quarterfinals when running in nine tries. Things got much tougher, though, against South Africa in the semifinals, when New Zealand had to overcome a five-point half-time deficit before triumphing 20-18.
Australia have had it tough all the way through, beginning with their preparation for the event. Coach Michael Cheika was only appointed a year ago amid a poor series of results and a series of off-the-field controversies surrounding the team. But the former New South Wales Waratahs coach has led a remarkable revival. Drawn into an unenviable Pool, also including hosts England and Wales, Australia beat both highly fancied opponents to finish top. Missing key players, the Wallabies then required a controversial late penalty to beat Scotland in the last eight, before holding on to see off Argentina and earn a 155th meeting with a country they first met 112 years ago.
New Zealand have had the better of the rivalry, winning on 105 occasions, including in the semifinals of the last World Cup. But Australia came out on top when the sides met in this year’s Rugby Championship, also involving South Africa and Argentina. Though New Zealand gained revenge a week later, Australia were then not at full strength.
Fortunately, despite a grueling World Cup that has seen a number of teams counting the cost of lengthy injury lists, both Australia and New Zealand will be at full strength on Saturday. Australia’s team had been in greater doubt after key prop Scott Sio was forced to miss out against Argentina with an elbow injury, while full-back Israel Folau has been battling an ankle problem that kept him out against Scotland. Both will start in the final, as will David Pocock, perhaps the player of the tournament, despite suffering a broken nose and two black eyes in an inspired semifinal performance.
New Zealand’s team is packed full of experience, including eight World Cup winners. And the final will provide a chance for some of the sport’s greats to bid farewell to the international stage on the highest of high notes. Captain Richie McCaw is widely expected to call it a day after what will be his 148th outing in an All Black jersey, while Carter will do likewise as the highest points scorer in the history of international rugby. Conrad Smith, Kevin Mealamu and Ma’a Nonu, all World Cup winners in 2011, will similarly be making their final appearance for New Zealand. For Carter, who was forced to miss the celebrations four years ago due to an injury suffered earlier in the tournament, Saturday’s final will be a particularly momentous event.
“Obviously it’s a huge occasion after some of the disappointments I’ve had in previous World Cups.” He said, according to the New Zealand team’s official website.
“The reason I signed a four-year deal [in 2011] was to give myself a chance at another World Cup - pretty far-fetched thinking that far ahead but that's what was driving me.
Kickoff time: Noon EDT
TV channel: NBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra