| England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson (right) arrives for practice with kicking coach Dave Alred on the eve of their final versus Australia in Sydney on Friday. (AFP)
Sydney: A place in rugby history is beckoning England and Australia as the two bitter sporting rivals collide in what promises to be an epic climax to the fifth World Cup here Saturday.
England start as narrow favourites to be the first northern hemisphere winners of the Webb Ellis Cup while reigning champions Australia are seeking to become the first country ever to secure back-to-back titles.
The 16-year history of the World Cup has thrown up a series of largely disappointing finals, but Saturday’s 83,500-seat sellout at the Olympic Stadium has all the makings of a classic.
Sections of the local media have painted the contest in black and white — boring England versus adventurous Australia — but both teams are more than comfortable playing expansively.
England’s boring tag has arisen from their reliance on the boot of superstar Jonny Wilkinson to see them out of tight corners.
The 24-year-old flyhalf kicked all England’s points in a 24-7 semi-final victory over France, and contributed 23 of his team’s tally in the 28-17 quarter-final win over the Welsh.
A similar virtuoso display against South Africa earlier in the tournament prompted one newspaper to trumpet the now-famous headline: “Is that all you’ve got'”.
In fact, England, under the guidance of coach Clive Woodward, have shown that they have much more. Tactical flexibility is the team’s strength according to Woodward’s Australian counterpart and great rival Eddie Jones.
“What Clive has done with the England side is taken a very conservative team and turned them into a side that can play any number of ways,” said Jones, who saw Australia taken apart 25-14 by England in June.
“They can play with width, they can kick, they can maul. In June they played 40 minutes against us which was the best ball movement we’ve seen this year in international rugby,” he added.
There is also a growing sense that England, led by their inspirational captain Martin Johnson, are a team that doesn’t know how to lose.
Alan Jones, Australia’s coach at the 1987 World Cup, has dismissed as media hype criticism of England’s style, and believes the advanced years of Johnson and his 30-something teammates is not a factor. “There is an extraordinary attribute that lifts people in contests such as this, independently of age and circumstance,” Jones said this week. “It’s called the will to win.”
Woodward has kept a lid on talk of ending an English trophy drought in major team sports that stretches all the way back to the 1966 soccer World Cup.
“We’ve gone game by game over the past two years and that’s been proved right,” Woodward said on Friday. “This week has been no different. I’m pleased where we’re at, but very simply it’s all about Saturday night.
“It’s a great match-up between two excellent sides and I think we’ve got the final this World Cup deserves.”
Woodward said he is expecting Australia to hurl all they can at England in the way that they did against New Zealand to score an upset 22-10 semi-final victory over the All Blacks last Saturday.
“There’s no doubt in my mind they’re going to throw everything at this England team,” Woodward said. “They’re going to try and play a lot quicker than us and will move the ball wide. We’ve got huge respect for them, even more so after the All Blacks last week. They absolutely demolished them.”
Jones meanwhile believes that a sequence of four defeats to England stretching back to 1999 will be irrelevant on Saturday. “It’s a complete one-off,” Jones said. “Past form is irrelevant.”
For Australia, fit-again centre Stirling Mortlock and flyhalf Stephen Larkham punched hole after hole in midfield against New Zealand, with rugby league converts Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri all sparkling. But it is in the pack that Australia must gain parity against England. Excelling against New Zealand, the young Australian eight need to reproduce the intensity that reduced the All Blacks to rubble.
The Wallabies suffered a blow in the front row after Ben Darwin suffered a career-threatening neck injury, which leaves the Australians short of clout against a formidable English front-row.
Jones acknowledged that no Australian pack under his reign had ever been able to match England’s forwards — but said he was confident the Wallabies would rise to the challenge.
“We’ve got a young pack and they’ve got nothing to fear,” Jones said. “They’ve got nothing to be frightened about. But we’re really going to have to muscle up.”
Anything else, and Australia will struggle. England’s forwards were at their belligerent best against France, with props Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman outstanding along with hooker Steve Thompson. Lock forwards Johnson and Ben Kay functioned well in the lineout and loose, while the back row of Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back dominated their French counterparts.
“We’re not going to beat England in a game of attrition,” Jones admitted. “If it becomes a game of attrition, then England win those games. They’ve shown that over the last four years. So we’ve got to be able to play the game at the pace we want to play and shift the ball around,” added Jones. “There’s definitely risks involved but for us it’s high risk, high return.”