Best seats for final are in back row

TAINE RANDELL
Last updated 05:00 23/10/2011
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PHOTOSPORT

All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw is monstered in a tackle by French opposite Julien Bonnaire in last month's World Cup Pool A match at Eden Park.

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Despite having arguably the best loosies in the world, the All Blacks will be wary of the world-class French back row, who are one of the main reasons Les Bleus will contest tonight's World Cup final.

The battle of the back rows in tonight's World Cup final is going to be colossal.

It won't be for the squeamish because it's going to be brutal. And it's also going to be decisive.

People who follow my columns will know I have long heralded the loose forwards as the barometer of a rugby team at all levels. The better your back row are, the better your chances of winning.

This World Cup more than anything has proved that rule to again be spot-on.

The All Blacks have the best back row in the world in Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino and that's one reason they will be favoured tonight.

But people who have been suggesting the French are undeserving of making this final are wide of the mark. I say that again because they have had one of the best trios of loosies at the tournament, especially since the quarterfinals, when Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusautoir have been quite magnificent.

Basically, they have carried the side through to the final because the French have been pretty limited with their tight five and backline play in most games. I'm sure they will look to build off their loose forwards tonight.

Their back row monstered England in the quarterfinals and did something similar against Wales in the second half of their dour semifinal.

Defensively, they are a fantastic unit and they are also very crafty.

France have been the least penalised side at rucks and mauls – they just haven't given their opponents anything to go on.

It's quite a different approach for a French side. It's a doggedness you don't normally associate with their loose forwards, who have had some great fetchers and link players down their history – flankers such as Jean-Pierre Rives, Olivier Magne, and Serge Betsen.

But I like the way the All Blacks loose forwards are coming on after the injury problems that plagued them at the start of the tournament.

New Zealand have three dynamic individuals who collectively are a rare mix of power and skill. I sense that as a unit they are reaching their peak in terms of performance.

It's been interesting to watch their development as a group over the last few seasons.

McCaw has been acknowledged as a world leader in his position for some time and there has been no arguments about that.

No 8 Read was the big mover on the international scene last year and was deservedly voted New Zealand's best player.

And this year we have seen Kaino take his game to a new level that has seen him nominated for the IRB Player of the Year award.

That's recognition for his consistency of performance and for the way he stepped up in the absence of Read and McCaw at various stages of the cup campaign.

It's been really pleasing to see the way Read has responded since making his belated entrance to the tournament. He has got better and better over the three matches he has played and showed his class by being able to do that at the business end of proceedings.

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As for McCaw, well, the skipper is a cunning character these days. I like the way he has evolved his game to complement his pack.

Last week against the Wallabies he was responsible for one direct turnover but he contributed to several others with his piling-in approach and sheer presence.

I sense that having players such as David Pocock and Heinrich Brussow spoken of as having overtaken him has really motivated McCaw to pick his game up in the last couple of matches.

And I'm sure that with his foot not being 100 per cent he has been clever enough to pick the games to front up most in. Of course, that points to tonight – nothing is bigger than a World Cup final.

This is the time for McCaw and his team to add the world champion mantle to their never-ending hold on the world No1 ranking.

I can't let this column pass without a special mention to Quade Cooper. Like many others, I've been into him over the past few weeks. And people were still getting stuck into him at Eden Park on Friday night early in the Wallabies' win over the Welsh. But when he was forced off with his knee injury, it was clear that game just wasn't the same without him – good or bad.

Taine Randell is a former All Blacks captain

- Sunday News