AHEAD OF THE TRANS-TASMAN FINAL AT TWICKENHAM, IT’S TIME FOR THE REST OF US TAKE SIDES. SURELY IT’S GOT TO BE NEW ZEALAND, HASN’T IT? YES, WELL, MAYBE NOT.
I have a sneaky feeling it’s going to be Australia. Why? Well, by definition, I don’t know. How could I? This – after all – is what separates a ‘sneaky feeling’ from a cast-iron, copper-bottomed theorem. On the one hand, you have an inexplicable hunch, a gut feeling that might just turn out to be last night’s paella and, on the other hand, you are the proud owner of a smug, impeccably researched, well-oiled opinion that’s robust enough to withstand all manner of contradiction. Trust me, this – the latter – is what I’d much prefer to have in my back pocket, not least so I could take it to the bookmakers and put it to good use. But I haven’t. Instead, as I said, all I’ve got is this sneaky feeling.
And, I confess, it’s a problem, not least when there’s twelve hundred words to write by lunchtime and all you can offer is a flimsy intuition. Worse still, look what my sneaky feeling is up against; the all-dancing, all-court All Blacks who, like Joe Namath in his New York minute, are currently hotter than fire. They’ve the best attack in the tournament, the best defence on the planet and all that tide of emotion as McCaw bows out, Carter says au revoir, Nonu calls it a day, et cetera, et cetera; I mean, what price a small premonition stacked against the imperial weight of all that?
And the more you compute, the worse it gets. Under the stone-faced Steve Hansen – would you seriously play poker with that man – New Zealand have rattled off fifty-three matches and lost just three of them. That’s both home and away. Specifically, in their last eleven against Australia, they’ve slipped up once. These aren’t statistics, they’re hexes and while nothing in life is ever certain, the All Blacks winning rugby matches is about as bleeding obvious as a puppy sitting next to a pile of pooh.
And yet, as I believe may have mentioned, I have this sneaky feeling. I mean, look at it logically. Good as New Zealand are – thirteen straight wins in World Cup matches – they can’t keep rolling on indefinitely; indeed the longer the streak, the more fragile it becomes. It’s a bit like playing ‘Jenga’. And no question there’ve been times in this tournament when they’ve looked somewhat flustered – against Argentina – and a little non-plussed – against South Africa – two teams who know them well. And no team knows them better than Australia.
They will get in their faces and up their noses. They will squeeze them in the tight, close them down out wide, smother them at the breakdown and wait for them to implode. They will look to shut down the hugely influential Brodie Retallick, ruffle the imperious Aaron Smith and let loose the dogs of war in their back row where Pocock, Hooper and Fardy – ‘Poopdy’ – will run amok. And if they can turnover enough ball – make that any ball – rest assured they have the wit and the creativity – unlike South Africa – to make a real mess of the scoreboard.
In most corners of the globe, not least this one, New Zealand are a shiver in search of a spine. The aura alone is worth a seven-point head start. Australia, though, just don’t buy any of that hokum and haven’t done since David Campese used to lean against the nearest upright and floss his teeth while Kiwi hooves Haka-ed themselves into a frenzy at the other end of the pitch.
And there’s no question that the pressure is all on New Zealand. This is the game they’ve invested four, meticulous years in, a serene, almost regal procession towards a seemingly inevitable coronation. Conversely, twelve months ago, you wouldn’t have wagered a swagman’s boiling billy-can that the ragtag Australians were capable of beating a carpet. But look at them now. They’re only team in the world with more momentum than the Kiwis and, in many ways, that’s what makes them so dangerous.
And if there’s one man who makes you believe anything’s possible, it’s David Pocock, the economy-sized eco-warrior who once spent ten hours clamped round a coal digger in New South Wales before the police managed to prise him loose. Now you know what Chris Robshaw felt like. Never in my rugby-watching life have I seen anyone so fast and so strong over the ball, which is presumably why he walks off at the end of each game looking as though he’s just been painted by Picasso.
One talisman often defines World Cups: in 2003, it was Martin Johnson, in 2007, Fourie du Preez and the last time, Richie McCaw. All won the thing. This year, unquestionably, it has been David Pocock. The best measure of his worth, perhaps, was the game he didn’t play, the quarter final against Scotland, when Australia came within seconds of catching the slow boat home. Clearly when he’s fit and firing, he is the totem of the team; indeed getting quick ball against Pocock is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.
Intangibly, you just sense there’s a touch of destiny about Australia. I remember a year or so ago chatting to the very likeable Drew Mitchell in exile in Toulon about the chances of getting drafted ahead of the World Cup and him saying that, yeah, ‘that’d be having my cake and eating it.’ At which point, he paused and smiled. ‘Mind you, I do quite like cake.’ Best man at Matt Giteau’s wedding and godfather to his son Levi, the two of them – ’The Toulon Two’ – have added an extra dimension to Australia since Michael Cheika shrewdly redrafted the rules to get them on board. Indeed, their inclusion might yet prove the masterstroke of the past twelve months.
I confess this blog hasn’t always been infallible, or more accurately, hasn’t ever been infallible. In fact, we’re oh for one, having tipped France to win William back in September and then compounded the felony by re-tipping them ahead of the quarter-finals. Make that oh for two. Not since 1944 when the Blue Book Modeling Agency advised Marilyn Monroe to ’find some secretarial work or get married’ has anyone looked quite so irredeemably stupid.
But the France thing was the cheese talking. I have no such sentimental hang-ups about Australia, a sunburnt dustbowl full of ghastly spiders, ludicrous property prices and grotesque phrases such as ‘fair dinkum’. In truth I’ve never really cared for the place since I went there on my honeymoon and a fruit-bat groped my wife. It’s a long story.
But this weekend I am advancing – fairly – alongside the whole of the country. If there was any worry about them, it’d be how much energy – not least emotional energy – they’ve spent getting here and I’m talking about the past twelve months not just the past six weeks. Set against that, though, if you had to pick one team to take on the All Blacks and win, you’d pick the mid-sized macropods of Australia. I just have this sneaky feeling that the Wallabies are going to do it, so if you’re sensible and you’ve a spare shilling, stick it on the Kiwis.
28th OCTOBER 2015
PS Three days later New Zealand won their third World Cup beating Australia 34-17. Ho hum.