Australia’s secret weapon for Rugby World Cup final
Although New Zealand haven’t always shown scintillating form during this Rugby World Cup in England and Wales, there’s a feeling that the competition-holders have the firepower necessary to beat anyone with a mere upping of the tempo.
The All Blacks proved as much with their quarter-final annihilation of France, while Steve Hansen’s men overcame a half-time deficit against South Africa in the semis to assert their dominance and progress to a final against Australia.
Given the caliber of the New Zealand players from number one through to 23, the Wallabies will enter the fixture knowing they’ll have to be at their best if they’re to prevent their opponents from defending their World Cup crown.
The forward battle, as always, will be a telling facet in dictating the eventual winner, but Michael Cheika’s charges will also need moments of inspiration from their gifted backline to win the clash.
So far in the tournament it has been the likes of Bernard Foley, Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper that have captured the imagination with their pace, running angles and clinical finishing out wide.
However, arguably Australia’s most gifted attacking weapon, Israel Folau, will have a pivotal role to play against the Wallabies’ fiercest rivals.
The code-hopping fullback has shown glimpses of his devastating footwork and incisive line breaks in the competition against the lesser nations, but in the bigger games it’s been his companions in the Aussie back line that have shone.
Since making the switch to rugby union from league via Aussie Rules, Folau’s athleticism and ball skills have been backed up with an almost immediate understanding of the game’s complexities, with his footballing intelligence from deep a key facet for both his state and country.
The 26-year-old’s ability to return wayward opposition kicks with incision and time his runs to hit the attacking line have been on show all year in Super Rugby, with Folau widely acknowledged as one of the most devastating strike runners in the world game.
With the All Blacks possessing the trickery of Nehe Milner-Skudder and unbridled power of Julian Savea in their back three, Folau’s ability to beat opposition defenders will be critical to counter-balance the threat of the New Zealand wingers.
An interesting personal battle between the Australian fullback and his opposite number Ben Smith will also have a bearing.
The Highlander’s ability in the tournament to launch up-and-unders and then win the aerial battle against his opposite number in enemy territory has put the All Blacks on the front foot and given them go-forward ball.
To neutralize this territorial threat, Folau will need to win his aerial contests against Smith and display the safe pair of hands that he has done all year.
Finally, with the New Zealand back three some of the world’s best at counter-attacking in open play, especially Milner-Skudder, Folau can ill-afford to kick waywardly.
The Australian has been guilty of inaccuracy with the boot at times during the World Cup; if this continues the All Blacks will surely punish the Wallabies more than the likes of Scotland or Argentina have in recent games.
Folau has all the skills to be a match-winner, with Australia needing their talented full-back to be at his best if they are to record a momentous victory on Saturday.