Adam Ashley-Cooper scores in the semi-final against Argentina – will he find it as easy to breach New Zealand’s defence in Saturday’s final at Twickenham? Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
Rugby is essentially a simple game which the world has spent the past 170 years complicating. Or that is the world bar New Zealand, who have spent the last decade or so trying to simplify the way they play the game. On Saturday we’ll see how far they’ve got.
When Australia and New Zealand run out at Twickenham, both seeking to win their third world crown, the gameplan each will try to impose on the other won’t be polar opposites, but it will be close. On one hand the All Blacks, the reigning champions and the best side on the planet for a decade and more, will rely on doing the simple things well, or better than the Wallabies. Australia are altogether adventurous.
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When you watch the All Blacks from the stand or touchline rather than on television, it’s the simplicity which is so striking. In essence they have a default position and as soon as they have the ball everyone scurries to their appointed place.
Think chevron. A shallow chevron with a knot of tight forwards – Brodie Retallick (always Retallick), Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks and Joe Moody – plus Richie McCaw at the point, the apex, with the rest of the back row out wide: Kieran Read and the mobile hooker Dane Coles on the right and Jerome Kaino wide left.
Between come the backs, but the gameplan relies on the ball-handling and carrying skills of the forwards. The All Blacks will kick, sometimes more than any other top side, but in essence they seek to impose themselves by being better individually than the opposition.
And there are times when they’re frustrated. Until half-time last weekend, South Africa stayed within a few points because the quality of their defence suffocated the black machine so much that Dan Carter’s kicking began to look like an option of last resort rather than something creative.
Unfortunately for South Africa – and for everyone else so far at this World Cup – the All Blacks not only have the experience to change things on the hoof, but they have a bench with the likes of Beauden Barrett and the super-direct Sonny Bill Williams to change things. Until Williams arrived, the All Blacks had looked lateral. With him in the centre, making holes, getting over the gainline, Carter suddenly had options. Kicks which had been last resort and simple to handle suddenly became bombs landing in empty spaces.
The other side of Saturday’s coin are Australia – a side more proactive in their search for the weak link. Like the All Blacks, the Wallabies make defenders take decisions, but instead of imposing themselves with simple skill sets (easier said than done) they go about the work of finding a mismatch in more dynamic fashion.Australia's first phase try Australia’s first phase try
The diagram shows Australia’s second try against Argentina, scored by Adam Ashley-Cooper, but with all the backs involved, if not touching the ball. As Bernard Foley scurries left to right, preparing to throw his long pass, Tevita Kuridrani is fixing the mid-field Argentina defence while Israel Folau, sweeping from centre field into the outside-centre slot, is the decoy occupying Juan Imhoff’s mind to such an extent that the wing steps in, leaving the corridor to the line down which Ashley-Cooper runs.
It looks simple. After all, not many tries are scored from first phase, but execution is clinical, much as it was when Foley and Kurtley Beale carved up the England defence – a move in which all the working parts conspired to isolate Ben Youngs as Australia’s fly-half and replacement wing treated the scrum-half as something of a traffic island; pass either side.