Dan Carter has the inimitable all-round class to guide the All Blacks to a historic World Cup win at Twickenham on Saturday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
No side has ever won back-to-back world titles, but this incredible generation of All Blacks players now stand on the verge of achieving this remarkable feat.
Quite rightly, Saturday’s clash has been described as the ‘dream final', with the All Blacks and Wallabies having been the two best teams at this World Cup, and although the Kiwis will come into the match as favourites, the Aussies certainly have a very good chance of causing an upset. The return of Scott Sio is also a significant boost for them up front.
Yet if the All Blacks are to emerge as champs, one can’t help but feel that Carter needs to be the man in the middle pulling all the right strings.
It will be his first appearance in a World Cup final, with injuries having curtailed his involvement in previous tournaments, while he watched from the sidelines as fourth-choice flyhalf Stephen Donald kicked the match-winning penalty in the 2011 title decider.
It’s required real mental strength and physical resilience for Carter to will his 33-year-old body to another World Cup, but he’s now just 80 minutes away from concluding his career in the finest fashion possible.
The same can be said for Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who will all be making their final appearances for the All Blacks.
Carter has slowly been building back to his best form, and we’ve already seen some glimpses of his brilliance during the play-offs. His draw, fend and back-hand offload for Julian Savea to score against France in their quarter-final was a piece of play made in rugby heaven. His snap drop goal against the Springboks last weekend was also widely acknowledged as the turning point in their semi-final.
In fact, to summarise his all-round expertise in that match, let me defer to Ian McGeechan, who enthused: ‘Carter controlled the territory, his kicking from hand and from the tee was immaculate, his decision-making was wonderful, his dropped goal glorious.’
The kicking battle, both out of hand and at posts, is undoubtedly going to be crucial on Saturday. In light of the Wallabies’ outstanding defensive line speed, the All Blacks’ ability to accurately stab kicks through or over the oncoming traffic will be a key factor.
The superb contestable kicking of Ben Smith, opposed by the peerless aerial skills of Israel Folau, will also make for yet another fascinating subplot. Not to mention the Wallabies’ effective kick restart strategies that often see a flying Drew Mitchell honing in on the ball receiver like a heat-seeking missile. Then there’s the importance of the exit plays, with this aspect of play having let the Boks down last weekend, enabling the All Blacks to eventually wear them down.
In a final, there will also always be a huge premium placed on the accuracy of the goal-kicking, with Carter having slotted 27 from 34 attempts at this World Cup for a 79% success rate, while opposite number Bernard Foley is just behind at 78%.
Beyond the multi-faceted kicking battle, it’s often been said that the key to beating the All Blacks comes down to besting them at the breakdown, where the ability to prevent them from generating momentum through rhythmic phase play can often be a make or break factor.
In this regard, the Wallabies have the most effective breakdown proponent in David Pocock, who has won a mind-boggling 14 turnovers at this tournament, and effected four in their semi-final. It goes without saying, though, that he will be a marked man at the breakdown, and the All Blacks will undoubtedly have a plan to counter his influence with accurate cleanouts or carries targeted at the No 8.
The importance of the bench influence can also not be underestimated in a final, and here again the All Blacks seem to have the edge, with Sonny Bill Williams particularly having proven to be the ideal impact player.
For a match such as this, one could go on and on about the permutations and possibilities. It is, after all, a final worthy of what has been an epic World Cup, but it's 'Dan the man' who quite possibly holds the key to another title success for the All Blacks.
HEAD TO HEAD
All Blacks 105, Wallabies 42, Draw 7
CARTER’S STATS THAT MATTER
63 – Points scored at this World Cup
79 – Goal-kicking success percentage
192 – Metres carried
88 – Tackle success percentage
159 – Passes
7 – Defenders beaten
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Subs: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Dean Mumm, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Kurtley Beale.
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Wayne Barnes (England)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images