POWER RANKINGS SPECIAL EDITION
It is with a heart lighter than usual that Rankings reports that this ninth World Cup final will be the fifth to feature two teams not named the All Blacks.
It will be the ninth time, however, at least one of the Southern Hemisphere giants has appeared at the big dance. Historically this might not seem such a big deal, but when you consider that since the early 2000s the vast majority of the game's financial and administrative heft has resided north of the imaginary line, it's something we should no longer take for granted.
Hemispheric representation in the final has tilted the rugby world off its axis. The south has provided 11 finalists, the north seven. The south has lifted the Webb Ellis seven times, the north once.
So there's that.
• Dylan Cleaver: This is the end of the All Blacks' dominance and the start of a new rivalry
• Dylan Cleaver: What is true and what is not after round two of the Rugby World Cup
• Dylan Cleaver: What happens to our game when the All Blacks are no longer the best in the world
• Dylan Cleaver: What defeat to Ireland will mean for the All Blacks and New Zealand
But we digress. The point of this exercise, as we wait on England and South Africa to meet in Yokohama, is to state that not all finals are created equal.
There's an old saying that Rankings has just now made up, that goes something like this: "Finals are generally crap games."
There are reasons for this, principally the fact that with so much at stake, not making mistakes is paramount in players' minds. It is not just the players who are affected either. Referees too feel the pinch.
Without further ado, let's ascend the rickety ladder of RWC showpieces, from crappiest to least crap. Where matches are equally or similarly crap, they will be separated by the sense of occasion.
8. South Africa 15 England 6 (Paris, 2007)
Rugby was in a fairly dire state in 2007 and nothing exemplified this better than this unwatchable 80-minute dirge that satisfied nobody outside the Republic of South Africa.
Screened at a user-friendly New Zealand time of Sunday morning, tens of thousands of rugby-mad fans tuned in for the first half hour before opting for more rewarding uses of time, like clearing the gutters and ferrying the mother-in-law to and from church.
It's impossible to state just how dire this match was. South Africa won courtesy of five penalties (four to Percy Montgomery, one to Francois Steyn) to Jonny Wilkinson's two. The only moment of drama – and, again, this is no embellishment – was early in the second half when the TMO took a while to come to the correct conclusion that England's Mark Cueto was in touch when attempting to score.
Otherwise, the game was non-spectacle of aerial ping pong. This was the era when taking the ball into contact was fraught, so nobody tried.
The only consolation was the right team won. South Africa had beaten England 36-0 in pool play and the Red Rose had been so poor throughout that rumour was a cabal of senior players effectively tossed out coach Brian Ashton's game plan and went rogue.
England's route to the final was beyond improbable. In their four matches against Tier One opposition at the tournament, they scored a try – singular! – and amassed 32 points.
There was the rout at the hands of South Africa in Pool A; they beat Australia 12-10 in the quarters after Stirling Mortlock had a shocker off the tee; had the great good fortune to meet France in the semis, who had played their final against New Zealand in Cardiff a week earlier, and cast them aside 14-9; then there was this nothing-burger of a final.
If it is an omen for this week's final, it is cast in the image of Damien Thorn – just a horror night for the sport.
7. New Zealand 8 France 7 (Eden Park, 2011)
A weird game played in a weird atmosphere controlled by a previously good referee who gave a weird performance.
The only redeeming features were that it featured two heroic captain's performances and was fantastically tight, with the outcome in doubt until the final minute.
Other than that it was a fairly wretched affair.
The game "featured" two tries, one from a nifty enough lineout move, the other a scramble after an ill-advised Piri Weepu fly-kick.
The All Black halfback was a central figure in the shambles. He'd been instrumental in guiding the All Blacks to the final after the curse of the first-five had struck down Daniel Carter and Colin Slade (and would account for Aaron Cruden in this match), but he pulled a stomach muscle in the warm-ups for this game, which badly affected his goalkicking and general play.
France, who had been a catastrophe in pool play, losing to New Zealand and Tonga, and incredibly fortunate in their semifinal against 14-man Wales, sniffed an opportunity. Led by the indomitable Thierry Dusautoir, they launched a furious second-half assault that on any other day would probably have resulted in a win.
On this day, however, they met staunch resistance from a broken-footed Richie McCaw and a strangely passive Craig Joubert. The South African whistler increasingly let the breakdown become a free-for-all, which suited the All Blacks who were doing anything they could to cling on to the lead.
In this part of the world, we'll remember this drought-breaking final for the fourth-choice first-five wearing an ill-fitting jumper squeezing a penalty inside the right-hand upright; in France, they'll remember it for darker reasons.
The right team won the tournament, but perhaps not the final.
6. Australia 12 England 6 (London, 1991)
This is the second final featuring England that has landed in the bottom three.
The connecting tissue between the two versions: England's contribution to the two finals was two penalties.
But that doesn't actually tell you the true story of this game. It was, by any standards, a bizarre affair.
England had spent the entire tournament being lampooned, mainly by David Campese and the antipodean press, for playing dull 10-man rugby. It was what they did.
They'd lost comfortably to New Zealand in pool play but had taken advantage of the soft side of the draw – they beat Scotland 9-6 in the semifinal when Gavin Hastings missed a penalty in front of the posts – to reach the final.
However, in the final they cast aside everything they were good at – sum total, kicking and mauling – to try to emulate the 1973 Barbarians. It was a pale imitation.
The Australians just sat back and laughed, even while putting together their least impressive game of the tournament.
They so nearly blew it, too. Leading 12-3 England actually created an overlap but Campese reached in to knock forward the final pass aimed for the lightning-fast Rory Underwood. In today's game, it would have definitely been a yellow card and possibly a penalty try, but Welsh ref Derek Bevan was satisfied a penalty was sufficient.
Australia were the best team, as they had demonstrated in easily accounting for the All Blacks a week earlier, but this was far from a classic.
5. Australia 35 France 12 (Cardiff, 1999)
Just one other final had a greater points aggregate so this should have been a decent watch, right?
Australia were as good as they had to be against a French side that were as wretched here in Cardiff as they had been brilliant the week before in London.
Yes, there were 47 points scored, but just 10 of them were through tries – to Ben Tune and Owen Finegan. Matt Burke landed an astonishing seven penalties and two conversions, while France's output was measured by four Christophe Lamaison penalties.
The dominant figure in the match? It was probably Burke but South Africa's Andre Watson, a man in love with the sound of his whistle, ran him a close second.
The Wallabies were not blameless for this poor spectacle either. Although the backline was sprinkled with gifted playmakers like Burke and in particular Stephen Larkham, coach Rod Macqueen's preference was to kick for territory and use their brilliant forwards like John Eales to squeeze the opposition into errors at the wrong end of the field.
It was a ruthlessly efficient and pragmatic way of playing the game, but nobody will be composing symphonies about it.
4. New Zealand 29 France 9 (Eden Park, 1987)
It wasn't the contest as much as the context that elevates this.
For starters, it was the starter. The amateur ethos of the International Rugby Board always made a World Cup a hard sell, particularly with some of the crustier, more entitled home nations, but they got it done.
This event was a homespun affair in contrast to today's ultra-commercialised product but it nevertheless provided a platform for one of rugby's super teams. The 1987 All Blacks were in a class of their own and the three-tries-to-one victory over France in the final confirmed this.
The margin was an accurate reflection of both the match and the gulf in quality between the All Blacks and anybody else. What people tend to forget, however, was that rugby was a fractured sport in New Zealand throughout the 80s.
The tone-deaf attitude of rugby administration towards contact with Apartheid South Africa had rent the country in 1981; the Cavaliers tour had only deepened the ill-feeling towards the game.
David Kirk, the cherubic All Black halfback, was shunned by his teammates because he had turned down the Krugerrand.
This team helped repair the rift not because it was suddenly populated by great blokes with progressive attitudes to race relations, but because they knitted together brilliantly on the field and played an intoxicating brand of footy.
Kirk, by now captain, saved his best riposte until his last act as an All Black, scoring a try and orchestrating another in the final. Perhaps his subtlest blow was delivered post-match when he called on injured and non-playing former captain Andy Dalton – a firmly pro-Tour figure – to lift the cup with him.
He wouldn't be human if he didn't look at the picture from time to time and smile at the obvious discomfort on his predecessor's face.
3. England 20 Australia 17 (AET) (Sydney, 2003)
We're now entering two finals best described as "not all that great footy, but great drama".
Sir Clive Woodward's England were the dominant force at this World Cup and by force we mean brute force.
They had used a big, experienced pack led by Martin Johnson, Phil Vickery and Lawrence Dallaglio to subdue all-comers, while the metronomic Jonny Wilkinson kicked goals either off the tee or half volley.
To the enormous shock of all cynics in this small corner of the universe, they also scored a try in this final, with Jason Robinson slithering over in the corner just before the half to make up for being out-jumped by Lote Tuqiri for Australia's only try in the 6th minute.
(If South Africa can take some hope into the weekend's encounter it would be that England have thus far managed just one try in 260 minutes of World Cup final rugby. If they think about that for too long, however, they'd realise they're yet to cross in 180 minutes of World Cup final rugby. Oh what a game we have in store!)
It is fair to say that the aforementioned whistler Watson was the only thing keeping the Wallabies in this match, played in front of 82,000 in the stadium and 15 million Brits watching at home. England's forwards were totally dominant but Watson found ways to penalise them for that advantage, including an unfathomable scrum penalty in the 80th minute that Elton Flatley calmly slotted to take it to 14-14.
Flatley and Wilkinson traded penalties in extra time before, in the final seconds, Wilkinson pivoted on to his weaker right foot and slotted a drop goal to give his side a deserved victory.
2. South Africa 15 New Zealand 12 (AET) (Johannesburg, 1995)
This match was no better than the previous – it might even have been a little worse – but you cannot compare the two for overall occasion.
This had a jumbo jet doing a flyover, an act that you'd guess has given most of the 63,000 in the Ellis Park stands lifelong memories… and tinnitus.
It had the awesome presence of Jonah Lomu, rugby's first global superstar and the man who reportedly convinced media baron Rupert Murdoch to pour millions into TV rights.
Most of all, it had Nelson Mandela in a Springbok No 6 jersey, an act of symbolism that did more to create the idea of a rainbow nation in the wake of Apartheid than any other.
Then there was the match, which wasn't all that great. The All Blacks were weakened by sickness and that combined with the Boks' smothering defence meant no space for Lomu or the other electric backs at their command.
It finished 9-9 at full time after Andrew Mehrtens missed a drop goal that would have silenced the crowd. He and Joel Stransky traded penalties in extra time before the latter landed the killer blow, drilling a 30m drop kick smack bang down the middle.
Hand on heart, you couldn't say the best team won. Hand on heart, you could say it was the perfect end – they made a movie about it for heaven's sake.
1. New Zealand 34 Australia 17 (London, 2015)
Lo and behold, a game that wasn't, well, crap.
World Cup finals had been almost uniformly dour, defence-oriented affairs but this broke the mould.
By sheer dint of their attacking armoury, the All Blacks forced the Wallabies to go forth in search of adventure.
In the cold shadow of a scoreboard, it looks like an easy win for the good guys but that's a lie. They were clearly the better team but when Ben Smith was sin-binned for a tip tackle, Australia used the man advantage to score two quick tries and reduce New Zealand's lead to four points with a quarter of an hour to go.
The big lead they had built through tries to Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ma'a Nonu and the boot of Dan Carter had evaporated.
It was Carter who eased the tension with a beautifully struck drop goal and a long-range penalty, before Beauden Barrett's kick-and-chase try put the icing on.
It was a superb game of rugby.
It was, finally, a match befitting a final.