x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A Rugby World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand?

It seems amazing to think an antipodean final has yet to happen, even though it is commonly agreed to be the probable outcome of this year's tournament.

A Rugby World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand? It seems amazing to think it has yet to happen in six attempts to date, even though it is commonly agreed to be the most probable outcome of this tournament again.

A number of players in both the Wallabies and All Blacks squads for the competition in New Zealand have been there, done that, and got the T-shirt, however.

In 2006, an Australia team including the likes of David Pocock and Will Genia played a New Zealand side captained by Victor Vito in the final of the Under 19 World Championships at the old Dubai Exiles ground in Al Awir.

If that tournament can be taken as a guide, then do not count against even more New Zealand World Cup heart-break at the end of the next six weeks.

That competition in the UAE proved how, depending how you look at it, New Zealand usually manage to find a way to lose the important games, while the Wallabies locate the Midas touch just at the right time.

Anthony Faingaa, the Queensland Reds centre, who has since graduated to the full Australia squad, sealed the win for Australia that evening in Dubai with a dropped goal.

New Zealand's luck must have been out.

According to his twin brother, Saia, the dreadlocked Wallabies hooker, who was the captain of that Australia Under 19 side, Faingaa had never kicked a drop-goal before in his whole life - "not even in the back yard at home".

As the International Rugby Board tried to drum up support for that tournament five years ago, the UAE rugby public were told they would be getting a glimpse of some of the international stars of the future.

It was difficult to tell who would stay the course on the evidence of those age-group matches, but some seemed to be dead certs, the most obvious being Vito.

The loose-forward, who will deputise for the injured colossus, Kieran Read, at No 8 in the opening match against Tonga today, was simply awesome in that company, even if his Baby Blacks side were defeated at the last.

Those people who witnessed him in Dubai knew immediately they had seen a star in the making, and they were not the only ones.

Gordon Tietjens, the celebrated New Zealand sevens coach, had him in his side for a season as he recuperated from shoulder surgery.

It coincided with a record-breaking run of wins for the abbreviated format's most successful side, and Tietjens even took to comparing Vito to Jonah Lomu, suggesting he had a future on the wing.

In rugby's Class of 2006, just as was the case when Manchester United were unleashing exciting young talent on the English Premier League, for all the Beckhams, Nevilles and Giggses, there was also the odd Terry Cooke.

For example, Genia was kept out of the starting line up back then by Josh Holmes, a scrum-half who was the standout player of that tournament alongside Vito, but has since stalled.

And Australians may argue that Pocock is the best No 7 in world rugby union today, but he was not even considered the best back-rower in his own team in 2006. AJ Gilbert was, but he has since gone off the radar, too.

All of which goes to prove there is very rarely any such thing as a sure thing in sport, even a New Zealand versus Australia World Cup final next month.

However, if the All Blacks do find the Wallabies waiting for them in the final at Eden Park, they would be advised to close down Anthony Faingaa if he looks like he is lining up a shot at goal.

pradley@thenational.ae


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