World Cup Final preview
World Cup Final: Australia v New Zealand
Old Trafford, Manchester
Saturday, 2.30pm (UK)
Sunday, 1.30am (AEDT), 12.30am (AEST)
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?
Is it the forward pack that determines victory or are the halves the architects of their team's success?
Is it better to have a halfback with fast feet or a No.7 who is quick between the ears? Is RLIF player of the year Sonny Bill Williams or Australian superstar Greg Inglis the greatest rugby league player on the planet?
Does Issac Luke have genuine claims to Cameron Smith's mantle as the premier hooker in the world?
All 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.
Against 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 feast.
In team changes, Billy Slater has been included in Australia's 19-man squad and looks set to reclaim the fullback spot, with Greg Inglis to bump Brent Tate out of the centres. For New Zealand, both wingers Manu Vatuvei and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck were named in their squad despite injury concerns although forward Frank Pritchard has been left out with a hamstring injury.
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
Not 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. Even without the injured Pritchard the Kiwis boast plenty of 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 Parker.
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 Sunday (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.