LONDON – The two best teams in the tournament. Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Archrivals. Neighbors. Records at stake.
The Rugby World Cup may just have its perfect final.
At the end of a tournament dominated by the southern hemisphere, New Zealand and Australia have proved the most durable and incisive over the six weeks, and the trans-Tasman rivals head to Twickenham on Saturday bidding to win rugby's grandest prize for a record third time.
It's the fourth time they have each reached the final but they have never met there, adding to the sense of occasion for one of the biggest events in sports.
Rugby World Cup finals have tended to be tight, tense games — the 2011 final finished 8-7 and two of the previous four didn't contain a try — but this showpiece promises to be different, with both sides preferring an expansive game and the weather in London forecast to be dry and an unseasonal 20 degrees (68 F).
The All Blacks have proved they can counter any style, any weather condition, and almost every opponent by losing just three of their 53 games since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup four years ago on home soil. They are in the conversation for the best team in the professional era (since 1996) and rightly start as favorites, as they seek to become the first team to retain the title, and win the World Cup abroad for the first time.
There've been none of the nerves, stress and injury problems that accompanied the team and its rugby-mad public in 2011, when they ended a cavernous 24-year wait for the cup. The All Blacks' performances were professional but inconsistent — by their high standards — in the pool stage, but they've mixed flair and resilience to beat France (62-13) and South Africa (20-18) in the knockout stage, and their 36 tries is easily a tournament high.
Coach Steve Hansen has his best players fit, his team is on a World Cup-record 13-match winning run, and how New Zealand would love to give the perfect send-off to captain Richie McCaw, flyhalf Dan Carter, hooker Keven Mealamu, centers Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu, and injured prop Tony Woodcock — five of them test centurions who are all likely to be playing their last matches in the All Black jersey.
It is that experience that Hansen believes will be a telling factor.
"When you have got experience and that experience is in good form," Hansen says, "that is a massive advantage."
"Every game is like a final" is an increasingly used phrase in sports, but it holds true for Australia in this tournament. Drawn in the toughest ever World Cup pool, the Wallabies have been playing knockout rugby since meeting — and beating — England and Wales in their final two group games. They scraped past Scotland in the quarterfinals, ultimately because of a refereeing error, and picked off Argentina in the semis last weekend.
The final will be the Wallabies' fifth straight match at Twickenham and the neutrals may just be on their side, hoping for a close match, with New Zealand having only lost one of the last 12 meetings with their neighbors.
That, however, came in the deciding match of the Rugby Championship in August, and the 27-19 win in Sydney will give the Wallabies confidence that the All Blacks juggernaut can be stopped.
It was in that match that Australia played openside flankers David Pocock and Michael Hooper together for the first time, and they caused carnage at the breakdown, as they have ever since. It is this area where the Wallabies will likely have a distinct edge on Saturday. Pocock, playing at No. 8, is averaging 3.5 turnovers a game in the tournament.
This time last year, Michael Cheika had just been hired as coach of the Wallabies and they went on to lose three of their four November tests in Europe. The transformation in 12 months has been incredible, to the point where they are 80 minutes from landing a third World Cup title on British soil — after 1991 and 1999.
They have 23 All Blacks — including arguably the game's greatest ever player in McCaw — and a wily coach standing in their way.
It couldn't be a bigger test, in every meaning of the word.