So it’s come to this. The 2015 Rugby World Cup Final awaits this weekend and will showcase the first-ever meeting of neighbours Australia and New Zealand on international rugby’s grandest stage. This battle of the globe’s two premier nations, as ranked by the game’s governing body, makes a salivating prospect for fans of the oval ball. But which of these giants of the Southern Hemisphere will emerge victorious at Twickenham on Saturday? And who will make the crucial difference that secures the Webb Ellis Cup for their team? We’ve picked five potential match winners.
Israel Folau (Australia)
The highest-paid member of the Wallabies’ squad, full-back Israel Folau has been criticised in some quarters for performing below expectations during this World Cup; struggling with an ankle injury that has impaired him across the competition. Despite this, Folau’s international record of a score nearly every two matches is nothing to be scoffed at. While his tournament has fallen short of expectation to date (culminating in his substitution on the hour against Argentina in the semi-finals), Folau will be eager to answer any critics – and there can truly be no better stage to do just that.
David Pocock (Australia)
With his trademark tree-trunk thighs and a host of battle scars to boot, including two black eyes from the bruising semi-final win over Argentina, vice-captain David Pocock typifies the grit and determination that has carried the Wallabies through their arduous wars with Wales and Scotland in earlier rounds. Viewed as integral to any Australian success this Saturday, Pocock’s tally of 14 turnovers during the tournament (the only player from any nation to rack up double figures) suggests the flanker will be a key component in winning the possession battle this weekend.
Bernard Foley (Australia)
An attacking threat for the Wallabies on multiple fronts, Bernard Foley charges into the final as the competition’s fourth-highest point scorer; with 15 penalties, ten conversations and two tries to his name this far. Despite host of glittering successes for club and country, Foley has spoken openly of Saturday being the biggest game of his rugby career; with the Sydney native striving for a repeat performance of the Super Rugby Final of 2014, where his last-minute match-winning penalty sealed a dramatic 33-32 triumph for Australia’s Waratahs over New Zealand’s Crusaders.
Drew Mitchell (Australia)
Saturday may be Drew Mitchell’s last opportunity to earn a World Cup winners’ medal – and it is one he will seek to take with both hands. One of two exiled Aussies playing their club rugby with Toulon, Mitchell has been very much at home in this European Rugby World Cup, scoring four tries since his inclusion as the second player to benefit from ‘Gitaeu’s Law’. Reported to be sacrificing a six-figure wage from his French employers to participate in the tournament’s climax, Mitchell is Australia’s all-time record World Cup try scorer; but none would be more valuable than one in Saturday’s final.
Adam Ashley-Cooper (Australia)
Holding over a century of caps in a variety of positions, Australia’s ‘Mr. Versatile’ ran home a hat-trick of tries in the semi-final win over Argentina and another against Scotland in the quarters. The utility man also holds a recent psychological advantage over the Kiwis, having been among the try scorers in their last meeting; a 27-19 win in Sydney in August. Ultimately, the dual pitting Ashley-Cooper and Mitchell against Milner-Skudder and Savea may prove the final’s decisive battle; with the Aussie duo possessing the fine form required to counter the All Blacks’ youthful exuberance.
Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
Rugby’s all-time highest test cap winner, the great Richie McCaw is set to equal Jason Leonard’s Rugby World Cup appearance record in Saturday’s Southern Hemisphere showdown; and the All Blacks skipper will hope he can follow in the footsteps of the current RFU President by orchestrating a RWC final defeat for the Australians this weekend. In what will likely be the flanker’s 149th and final appearance for his nation, McCaw will be determined to leave the sport’s grandest stage with a second World Cup winner’s medal; and his big game experience will provide an immeasurable asset.
Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)
The involvement (or lack thereof) of SBW this weekend may prove an intriguing subplot in determining the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup. Despite appearing for a limited number of minutes across the tournament, Williams has contributed some ten offloads to the cause; as well as some 28 carries over the game line. A former boxer, Williams packs the punch to neutralise fellow pugilist Quade Cooper of Australia, but will be resigned to making an impact on Saturday from the substitutes’ bench. Nevertheless, SBW is a game-changing player should the game need changing.
Dan Carter (New Zealand)
One of five players to crack the 60-point mark (including eight kicks against the French), Carter has thrived in what will be his last World Cup; and it bodes well for New Zealand’s chances should the outcome be decided by a narrow margin that no man in RWC history has landed more successful conversions. Completion of Carter’s upcoming biography ‘My Story’ has been halted until after the final; with any All Blacks victory sure to provide a fitting closing chapter. The two-time IRB Player of the Year was ruled out of the 2011 final and will therefore be itching to go in Saturday’s curtain call.
Nehe Milner-Skudder (New Zealand)
Only a fully-fledged All-Black for a matter of months, Nehe Milner-Skudder wasted little time making an impact on the international scene, scoring two tries on his New Zealand debut in Australia in August. Selected as Man of the Match for his Pool Stage performances against Namibia and Tonga, the 24-year old wing wizard has amassed a five-try haul during the competition, making him one of the key figures in the All Black XV. Mentored in England by teammate SBW, Milner-Skudder’s lack of experience is counterbalanced by a decided lack of fear; so often a key match-winning ingredient.
Julian Savea (New Zealand)
The force of nature known affectionately as ‘The Bus’ has motored his way to eight tries in 2015’s Rugby World Cup, the most in the entire competition. Among them have been hat-tricks against both France and Georgia, with two of his tries against the French now shortlisted for IRPA Try of the Year honours. With 38 tries in 40 tests, Savea’s prolific record suggests it is almost inevitable he will threaten the Australian line on Saturday. Most notably, New Zealand have only lost one of the 40 internationals Savea has scored in. However, that defeat happened to be at Twickenham….
The Rugby World Cup Final is a classically-tight affair, settled twice in extra-time and by a single point in 2011. The Aussies have made Twickenham into a fortress over the past month, winning against England, Wales, Scotland and Argentina on consecutive weekends to secure their final berth. However, the All Blacks will provide their toughest test to date, with Steve Hansen’s team spurred on by their opportunity to become the first ever to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. With both Australia and New Zealand bringing a 100% record into the final, something simply has to give; but with the squads so well-matched in their pursuit of an unprecedented third World Cup title, it may take some time for an ultimate winner to be determined. For that reason, we are making the prediction that the final will be the first and only game of the tournament to be level at the end of 80 minutes.
In extra-time, fitness and fortune become even greater factors, as well as confidence from winning crunch tests at the very highest level. Despite Australia having the experience edge in the pivotal wing battle, only Matt Giteau has previously played for the Wallabies in a World Cup Final, while seven of New Zealand’s starting XV were involved in the 8-7 win over France four years ago. Though the battle-hardened Aussies have more than enough to take the championship home should New Zealand perform below their peak, the All Blacks’ irresistible blend of wild-eyed youth, world-beating know-how and absolute ability across the field should prove just enough to win it. Our prediction? Australia 12 New Zealand 14 (AET), with Milner-Skudder or Savea grounding the Kiwis’ crucial try.
Agree or disagree with the Kitbag verdict? Tweet us your prediction at @KitbagUK. Meanwhile, whether you’re backing the All Blacks or Wallabies this weekend, Kitbag.com has a host of match, training and supporter wear for fans of New Zealand and Australia alike. Whichever side you’re on, beat the scrum and secure your piece of Rugby World Cup history – while stocks last!