This is a World Cup final that will, for the next four years at least, provide some certainty about which nation can claim to be world champions, but it may also resolve some of rugby league's most enduring conundrums.
Is it better to go in to a decider battle-hardened or are the bumps and bruises too much to overcome in the space of seven days?
World Cup Final: Australia v New Zealand
Old Trafford, Manchester
Saturday, November 30 2.30pm (UK)
Sunday, November 31 1.30am (AEDT), 12.30am (AEST) Tune in to 7mate
Is it the forward pack that determines victory or are the halves the architects of their team's success?
it better to have a halfback with fast feet or a No.7 who is quick
between the ears? Is Sonny Bill Williams or Greg Inglis the greatest
rugby league player on the planet?
Will Billy Slater recover in
time to shift Inglis back to the centres, and will Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
overcome the leg injury that threatens to derail a spectacular World Cup
performance that has established his place as a permanent member of the
Kiwi Test team?
Does Issac Luke have genuine claims to Cameron Smith's mantle as the premier hooker in the world?
tantalising questions in their own right and all to be answered over
the space of 80 minutes on one of the world's grandest sporting stages,
Old Trafford in Manchester.
A quick examination of the respective semi-final victories shows some fascinating trends.
England, New Zealand finished on the wrong side of the statistics in
try assists, line breaks, line-break assists, missed tackles, errors and
possession, yet somehow came away with one of the most memorable
victories ever seen in international rugby league.
On the other
side of the draw and against far inferior opposition, the Kangaroos had
58 per cent of the ball, ran for 1,690 metres, made 12 line breaks and
missed just seven tackles (compared to Fiji's 53).
Drawing a line
through that form to determine a winner is just as difficult as deciding
what's nicer between ice cream or pizza but whichever way it plays out
we're sure to have a satisfying conclusion to a six-week rugby league
Watch out Australia: Some purists may argue that a
pass that hits the ground should be considered a dropped ball rather
than an offload but the extraordinary ability of Sonny Bill Williams to
extend the play has the potential to create problems for the seemingly
impregnable Kangaroos defence. Such is his proficiency that there is
even a Facebook page dedicated to his out-and-out refusal to be tackled
with the ball titled, 'I hate it when I tackle Sonny Bill Williams and he just offloads'.
Sonny Bill's 17 offloads in the World Cup thus far are five more than
anyone else, and he missed the game against France and went off injured
before half-time against Scotland. Only two players have made more line
breaks than him and his three try assists are more than Johnathan
Thurston has been given credit for.
The Kiwis can't beat the
Kangaroos in a game of chess but second-phase play that brings Issac
Luke, Shaun Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck into play could upset the
structure of the Australia defence. Just like he did in the NRL Grand
Final, Sonny Bill lifted his side to new heights when all hope seemed
lost in the semi-final against England and his importance to New
Zealand's chances won't be under-valued by the Kangaroos.
Watch Out New Zealand: Much
attention in the build-up will focus on Greg Inglis's possible return
to the centres for Australia but Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney would be
wise not to ignore the threat posed by the man on the opposite side of
the field. When the Kangaroos squad was announced six weeks ago Jarryd
Hayne's inclusion was seen as a way to cover wing or fullback should the
squad be struck down by a crisis of injuries. Yet a gamble by coach Tim
Sheens to go with the Eels superstar at right centre ahead of the
experienced Brent Tate for the quarter-final clash with the United
States saw Hayne score four tries, becoming just the eighth player to
score that many for Australia in a Test. When he was rewarded with a
spot in the team to play Fiji in the semi-final, Hayne's output was
three tries, two try assists, 176 metres, nine tackle-breaks and four
line-breaks. Bryson Goodwin has been outstanding defensively for South
Sydney and the Kiwis in 2013 but even he would concede that a match-up
against Hayne was one that he wasn't expecting.
Key Match-up: Cameron Smith v Issac Luke
since Steve and Kerrod Walters vied for representative selections
against each other have two such outstanding hookers plied their trade
in such dramatically different fashions. Like Kerrod, Issac Luke
provides his side impetus through his running game while Smith is more
from the 'Boxhead' mould of strength in and around the ruck and a
complete control of his side's attacking structure. In an unrelenting
forward battle, Luke ran for 109m against England last weekend while
Smith, in the Kangaroo canter against Fiji, ran for just 35m. While
Luke's energy and power propel his side downfield, it is Smith's smarts
that keep the Kangaroos structured and constantly applying pressure to
the opposition. Throughout the World Cup Smith has, somewhat
surprisingly, had more carries (113-93) and dummy-half runs (93-73) than
Luke but the Kiwi No.9 leads the way in metres gained (635-464) and
tackle-breaks (19-5). They're polar opposites yet equally vital to their
side's chances and their individual battle will go a long way to
determining the rugby league world champions.
Where It Will Be Won:
The big blokes who start up front will invariably be the ones who put
their respective side on the front foot but in a World Cup Final it will
be the best overall forward rotation that determines who controls the
ebb and flow of proceedings over the course of 80 minutes. The expected
return of Frank Pritchard to the Kiwi line-up bolsters their depth while
Andrew Fifita, Corey Parker and Josh Papalii have made significant
contributions off the bench for the Kangaroos. With a prop forward
rotation of Waerea-Hargreaves, Bromwich, Matulino and Kasiano the Kiwis
have the edge in pure size whereas the Kangaroos are more reliant on the
tenaciousness and work ethic of the likes of Bird, Gallen, Thaiday and
And then there's a bloke called Sonny Bill. When the
Kiwis were desperate against England it was 'SBW' who they turned to and
on a number of occasions he went close to delivering the seemingly
impossible, including taking a George Burgess smack across the mouth to
earn his side the crucial penalty in the final minute. His late
inclusion in the Kiwi squad at the expense of Tohu Harris caused
widespread controversy but if he can find a way to lead his side to a
successful defence of their title he will take his place among the most
extraordinary sportsmen that the southern hemisphere has ever produced.
Televised: 7mate – Live from 1am Saturday (NSW); midnight (Qld)
The Way We See It: All
Australia can do is beat those who are put in front of them and the
fact remains that they have not conceded a try in their past 324 minutes
of football. Is their defence that good or has the opposition attack
been less than potent? New Zealand got a fright against Samoa then
demolished France, Papua New Guinea and Scotland and somehow found an
escape route against a committed England team to earn the right to
defend their title. So is their form patchy or exactly what's necessary
ahead of a World Cup Final against the Kangaroos? For the Kiwis the ride
has been emotional while the Kangaroos have been clinical but the next
time the defending champions head to the well they may find it has run
dry. Kangaroos by 4.