New Zealand finally broke two decades of World Cup drought by surviving a test of nerve that secured them an one-point win in an epic final against France that was enough to send the nation into scenes of wild jubilation.
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It would be interesting to see if the cardiac theatres in New Zealand’s hospitals got to work overtime during and after this 8-7 win by the All Blacks in front of 60 000 people at Eden Park. It certainly wasn’t the one sided final so many people thought it would be -- far from it in fact, and it probably wouldn’t be stretching it to suggest France were the stronger team on the night.
The All Blacks just shaded the first half, but in the second half it was mostly the French that dominated possession and territory as they forced the All Blacks into a desperate defensive role. The crowd was lively in the final two minutes as they counted down the clock and obviously afterwards, but the disquiet and nervousness in the stadium was palpable as the All Blacks threatened another of their famous chokes against their long-time nemesis.
This came just after the All Blacks had gone more than a score ahead for the first time in the match. Piri Weepu had been woeful with his goalkicking in the first half, missing three place-kicks, one a conversion and two penalties, and up stepped replacement flyhalf Stephen Donald in the 45th minute to finally slot one from in front to make it 8-0.
But France had started the half strongly and they were put back onto the attack through an intercept from Francois Trinh-Duc, who was on the field as replacement flyhalf for Morgan Parra. The French were very strong at the gainline in the second half, and they had enough momentum for skipper Thierry Dusatour to power over next to the posts.
The conversion by Trinh-Duc made it a one point game with 32 minutes to go, and that is the way it stayed right until the end. There was no doubt the All Blacks were rattled after conceding that score. Donald kicked off too long from the restart, the French played their way into New Zealand’s half, and with their pack starting to control, it looked ominous for the All Blacks.
However, although frequently the French were strong enough to bash across the gainline, the All Black defence held steady, and the only real scoring chance the French enjoyed was when they were awarded a penalty from a dominant scrum just inside the Kiwi half with 16 minutes to go. Trinh-Duc pushed it to the right.
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The French spent enough time in the All Black half, but couldn’t get themselves into position to try a drop-goal. France might claim that the All Blacks got the rub of the green from referee Craig Joubert in that last quarter -- there was at least one occasion All Black captain Richie McCaw was lying over the ball without being punished.
But there was also no denying that the All Blacks showed great discipline, and maybe they will be pleased that they won this one the hard way. They hadn’t faced scoreboard pressure before this game, and although they were never headed, they did have to dig much deeper here than they have at any other time in the tournament.
They played the right rugby too. Although they didn’t get their hands on the ball that often, when they did they made sure they kicked it into French territory and into the corners. They also did that extremely well in the first half when they were looking to build on the 5-0 lead that came courtesy of a well worked lineout try in which Tony Woodcock powered his way through the huge gap that opened in front of a Jerome Kaino take as the formation separated into two pods in the 15th minute.
The game had been even until then, with the French probably enjoying the bulk of the possession in that period, but the try was the cue for the All Blacks to play their most controlled rugby of the match for the next 15 minutes. Until the half hour mark they forced the French into the corners and looked to be in the process of strangling them, but they failed to make it count on the scoreboard.
France came back strongly in the last 10 minutes of the half and their forwards had started to gain the ascendancy by the break. Though their only scoring opportunity had been a missed drop-goal attempt in front of the posts by Trinh-Duc, the French would have been happy to go to the break just 5-0 down as they looked to be building.
A significant moment in the match was the departure from the field of Aaron Cruden, the third choice All Black flyhalf injuring his knee. Although Donald showed good temperament in the last quarter apart from that long kick-off, the All Blacks never seemed to have quite the same degree of zip and fluidity at the back once Cruden left the field.
That said, the second half was dominated by France in terms of possession. The first half was even, with the official stats showing 50% each, while New Zealand had a marginal (53%) territorial advantage. The tackle count was interesting, with the All Blacks being forced to make 48 against France’s 53.
Both teams took turns to poach the other’s lineout ball once during that first half, and there really was very little between the teams at halftime. The second half though saw France do most of the playing, with the possession statistics ending in their favour 55/45 and the same with the territory.
They also overturned the tackle count, with the match ending with New Zealand having been forced to make 111 tackles against France’s 87.
It was a match of few line breaks, with both defences holding steady, and France did well to negate the counter-attacking threats of the All Black back three, with Israel Dagg not being allowed the leeway he enjoyed against other opponents. The French loose-trio was particularly effective, off-setting their absence of a specialist fetcher with their physical approach to the breakdowns.
France may have been unlucky not to pay their bravery in fronting New Zealand head on with the trophy, but in the end you would have to say that justice was done in the sense that the All Blacks hadn’t lost in the tournament while France had lost twice.
After holding the World Cup trophy aloft the All Blacks did a slow lap of honour around Eden Park, few in the huge crowd leaving their seats as they feasted on the joy of seeing their team win the World Cup for the first time since the inaugural World Cup here in 1987. The All Black players thanked their fans with a haka before continuing round the field to the sounds of continuous applause. The party here should continue long into the night.
New Zealand - Try: Tony Woodcock.Penalty: Stephen Donald.
France - Try: Thierry Dusautoir. Conversion: Francois Trinh-Duc.