Australia can surprise the Kiwis in the final

It is doubtful whether many people expected Australia to lose to Argentina in the second semi-final of the Rugby World Cup. There was a period last year when this could have happened, a time when the Wallabies were being described as the Wobblies, but under the new coach, Michael Cheika, things seem to have changed.

But the scoreline — 29-15 — flattered Australia. The last try that blew out the score came off a forward pass from Drew Mitchell to Adam Ashley-Cooper, a pass that went unnoticed by referee Wayne Barnes. But that is not surprising because Barnes does not seem to know how to spot a forward pass. He has form in this regard.

Until that try, Argentina was within touching distance and only needed a converted try to level the scores. That they failed to score a try was due to their lack of experience; the line breaks came with regularity but whoever did so tended to hang on to the ball too long and ended up losing possession. This happened no matter whether there was support or not.

The holes that appeared in Australia’s back-line should be a cause for worry but they appear to have been glossed over by the media in the euphoria over Australia’s win. There appears to be miscommunication between centres Matt Giteau and Tevita Kuridrani and that, in the main, appears to be causing huge gaps to often open up. That is not surprising for the pair only came together for the World Cup; contrast that with New Zealand’s centres Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith who have played 57 Tests together.

The match against Argentina also showed how dependent the team is on David Pocock, a forward who is excellent at forcing turnovers, disturbing opposing forwards, and acting as a disrupting force par excellence. He was bloodied a great deal during the semi-final, but it is not too much to expect that no matter what his condition, he will be there at No 8 next week.

Israel Folau played only to about 30 per cent of his capacity, and there will no doubt be those who advocate that Kurtley Beale replace him for the final. But playing Beale is a big gamble as he tends to do stupid things at time, much in the same way that Quade Cooper does. Folau, even at that reduced level, is a whole lot safer than Beale.

There is no certainty about the final. New Zealand can play well one day and collapse altogether the next. Over the last 20 years, I have seen the best and worst of the All Blacks and it remains to be seen which team turns up for the final. There is plenty of additional motivation to win for a number of players are playing their last games for the team — Richie McCaw, Nonu, Smith, Jerome Kaino and Keven Mealamu will all leave after this game — and their teammates would love to give them a nice leaving gift.

But Australia is a talented outfit and they always raise their game a notch against their traditional enemies. I would not be surprised if Australia squeaked through due to an error or two by an over-confident All Blacks team.

Pity things didn’t end on a better note for Habana

No matter where your allegiances lay in the the first Rugby World Cup semi-final, you’d have to feel for Bryan Habana, one of the great South African wingers, who is unlikely to be seen at this level again.

No doubt Habana was hoping to have a major impact on this game. But it wasn’t to be and all he can play for now is to decide third and fourth place honours. Equalling Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 World Cup tries is poor consolation because he will never be talked of in the same class as Lomu.

Habana had the worst of games, a real nightmare. Early on, as the All Blacks rumbled towards the South African line, Habana chose to advance early to try and effect an interception but he ended up tackling Richie McCaw after he had passed the ball. As a result, he left young Lood de Jager as the last bastion of defence to face two All Blacks forwards, Jerome Kaino ball in hand, with Dane Coles running in support on the right.

De Jager went for Kaino as the All Blacks flanker switched to the right with Coles taking the inner track, but he was too late. Kaino, tough as nails, shoved him off and scored what would be the first of two tries in the game. This is de Jager’s first World Cup, and Habana’s third, so it is fair to expect that the senior man should have acted more prudently. Fullback Willie le Roux arrived on the scene after the deed was done.

When Daniel Carter was taking the conversion for this try, Habana charged out of his blocks well before Carter had even moved to take his kick. The All Black five-eighth kicked the ball wide of the posts but got a second chance at the conversion because of Habana’s illegal move. He got the two points on the second try.

Habana had a few good runs to collect high balls, but these were small returns for such a talented man. South Africa wasn’t playing a running game at all, so he was restricted to doing these things and occasionally foraging for the ball in the ruck.

Then, in the second half, Habana reached across the ruck divide to tap the ball from Aaron Smith’s hands, an illegal act that he should have known was prohibited. He not only yielded a penalty but was given a 10-minute rest in the bin as well.

To his mortification, he had to first witness the All Blacks score a second try — which gave them the lead that they never surrendered again — before he had to listen to referee Jerome Garces’ standard lecture and have a yellow card flashed in his face.

There will also be bad memories for another veteran, Victor Matfield. Matfield, 37, came out to play the last 20 minutes of the game, joining a bunch of South African forwards who had done extremely well in the scrums but seen New Zealand repeatedly pilfer the ball in the lineouts.

Though Matfield did win a couple of lineouts, he lost a crucial throw to young Sam Whitelock, 10 years his junior, with South Africa close to the All Blacks line.

(Incidentally, on the field at the time was Keven Mealamu, who burrowed his way past Matfield when the teams met in the 2003 quarter-final to score the try that sealed New Zealand’s passage into the last four of that tournament.)

Matfield also suffered the ignominy of knocking on in the last play of the game, an act that ended the game, at a time when South Africa needed to run the ball and get it down to the opposite end of the field.

All Blacks fans, don’t forget what happened in 2003

No doubt, all New Zealand rugby supporters are over the moon with the way their team entered the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup, transforming themselves at one stroke from favourites to red-hot raging favourites.

Many people are, however, forgetting ahead of the semi-final clash against South Africa that this is not the first time New Zealand have been in this position. Hark back to 2003 and an eerily similar situation presents itself.

That year, after a long hiatus, New Zealand regained the Bledisloe Cup from Australia. The team had a new coach, John Mitchell, who, after seeing the success of the Auckland Blues in the Super Rugby competition, decided to structure the national team around four players who won the title for the Blues.

Mitchell could claim to be justified in his plans because the four — wingers Joe Rokocoko and Doug Howlett, stand-off Carlos Spencer and fullback Mils Muliaina — were all highly talented and versatile. The Blues played a style of fast, open rugby, running up big scores, and Mitchell wanted the same style for the national team.

Spencer had been part of the national team earlier, when he took over from an injured Andrew Mehrtens in 1996-97, but then was dumped when Mehrtens recovered. The years from 1998 to 2002 were bad years for New Zealand, when they failed to win the Tri Nations on many occasions and also were eliminated from the 1999 World Cup in the semi-finals by a rampant France.

It did not matter to Mitchell that to implement this plan, he had to get rid of Christian Cullen, arguably the most talented rugby player New Zealand has produced apart from Jonah Lomu. And it did not matter that the key man in his plans, Spencer, was something akin to the little girl with a little curl down the middle of her forehead: when Spencer was good, he was very, very good. But when he was bad, well, he made horrible blunders.

Mitchell’s methods worked in the international fixtures before the World Cup; the All Blacks defeated both Australia and South Africa with ease and came to the September World Cup as overwhelming favourites.

They won their group matches by lopsided margins, with the one downside being a tournament-ending injury to Tana Umaga. Mitchell promptly decided that Leon MacDonald — who, at that time, was seen as some kind of talisman by the team management even though his regular role was substitute fullback — would play in Umaga’s place.

It all seemed to work; MacDonald even scored a try after a piece of Spencer magic in the quarter-final against the Springboks. Ironically, sitting on the bench in those games was Daniel Carter who had just made his debut in the first Test of that season and would surely have been a much better bet at centre.

In fact, things had gone so well in the World Cup that the well-known former All Blacks winger Stu Wilson made a bold prediction: the All Blacks would not be beaten by Australia in the semi-final and would progress to the final.

But we all know how that worked out: early in the game, with play fairly close to Australia’s line, Spencer threw one of his trademark cut-out passes to Rokocoko which, had it reached the Fijian winger, would have seen him make his way to the line with ease.

The ball was intercepted by Stirling Mortlock who then ran nearly 90 metres to score, something from which the All Blacks never recovered. The next morning, the New Zealand papers were full of big pictures of Spencer sitting on the ground with his head in his hands.

True, New Zealand have learned much from that tournament and also the 2007 loss to France (though the latter was in part due to inept officiating by referee Wayne “forward pass” Barnes). South Africa play a crash-bash game, attempting to move up in drips and drabs, and then score through penalties. And they had a tough night beating a side like Wales, generally considered a second-string side to the big boys of world rugby.

But one bad move can be decisive and New Zealand supporters would do well to adopt the attitude of the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw who, when asked at the post-match interview about the game that had just gotten over with a 62-13 victory, replied: “All that we have done is to buy ourselves another week here.”