Auckland, New Zealand, Oct 23: New Zealand survived the last of an uncanny spate of flyhalf injuries and a searching test of character to close a cavernous gap in its rugby history, beating France 8-7 in a gripping Rugby World Cup final Sunday to become the third two-time champion.
Despite being the perennial favorite, New Zealand hadn't won the World Cup since hosting and winning the inaugural tournament in 1987. Two of its biggest losses in knockout matches in the intervening 24 years were to France. This time, the All Blacks held on.
“It's something we've dreamed of for a while,” All Blacks coach Graham Henry said. Now, “We can rest in peace.”
The French had been written off after an acrimonious and disjointed tournament, but produced one of their finest World Cup performances.
“I feel immensely sad and immensely proud at the same time,” France coach Marc Lievremont said. “People have always said and thought that the All Blacks were the greatest team of all time, but tonight I think it's the France team that was great, and even immense. It's tough to take, we needed a little bit more.”
All Blacks No. 10 Aaron Cruden limped from the field with a knee injury after 33 minutes, joining predecessors Dan Carter and Colin Slade as casualties of the tournament and leaving New Zealand's fourth-choice flyhalf, the often vilified Stephen Donald, to sustain its World Cup hopes.
France also lost its starting flyhalf, the adapted scrumhalf Morgan Parra, after only 22 minutes in a match of grim physical attrition and his replacement, Francois Trinh-Duc played both the hero and villain as a tense final unfolded.
Donald's international career seemed to have ended when he was held responsible for New Zealand's narrow loss to Australia in Hong Kong last year and he was about to join English club Bath when the All Blacks' flyhalf stocks dropped so low he was recalled.
He took over the goalkicking in the second half and landed a penalty that gave New Zealand an 8-0 lead after it had led 5-0 at halftime. It was critical as New Zealand was left with a one-point margin when France hit back with a 47th minute try, then placed New Zealand under withering pressure throughout the second half.
“There are people out there who undermined my status as an All Black. To get the chance to prove that I am an All Black is good,” Donald said. “I think a World Cup final is a pretty good place to start.”
Trinh-Duc had been discarded by Lievremont as France's first-choice flyhalf in favor of Parra, whose experience in the position was minimal. By a twist, Trinh-Duc came on in the final in the position he seemed predestined to play and became one of its most conspicuous figures as the ball followed him with an almost magnetic attraction.
He twice ghosted through the All Blacks backline, on the second occasion setting in motion the move that led to a try to Dusautoir. He also missed a 64th-minute penalty which might have given France its first lead in a hard-fought match.
France, led magnificently by Dusautoir who made 22 tackles, placed the All Blacks under grinding pressure throughout the second half but somehow, through the merits of its defense rather than its vaunted attack, New Zealand endured.
And so, 24 years, four months and three days after New Zealand's David Kirk became the first winning captain to receive the Webb Ellis Cup, Richie McCaw displayed the trophy to a crowd of 61,000 at the scene of that first victory, Eden Park.
In McCaw's 103rd test—his 66th as captain—and in Henry's 103rd test as coach, New Zealand finally broke one of world sport's most confounding jinxes, a long history of World Cup favoritism and failure which strained the nerves and the patience of a nation.
“No-one can ever take this away from this group. I think the whole country should be proud of every single one of them,” McCaw said. “I'm just so proud of every single one of the guys. We couldn't have been under any more pressure.”
McCaw led his players heroically, as the first player to reach breakdowns, as a determined tackler and as a frequent ball-carrier. When he dragged himself from the ground to play on in the 76th minute, bruised and bone-weary after helping New Zealand repel 15 phases of French attacks, the crowd saluted him.
The second half reversed the first in which New Zealand had France under steady pressure. That led in the 15th minute to an error in defense by Trinh-Duc and to a try from planned move at a lineout to loosehead prop Tony Woodcock. The ball went to the back, then to Woodcock in the center and as the French line parted like a curtain the veteran prop dashed through.
Though scrumhalf Piri Weepu sprayed three early kicks at goal, New Zealand built a measurable ascendancy, reflected only in a 5-0 lead at halftime.
Donald made the lead 8-0 with his 45th-minute penalty but France plunged the stadium into silence two minutes later with Dusautoir's try. Weepu kicked the ball into the hands of Trinh-Duc who made a deep incursion into their territory. Scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili slipped in taking his infield pass but France moved the ball to the left touchline, then back to midfield where Dusautoir slid over near the posts. Trinh-Duc added the conversion which cut New Zealand's lead to a point.
Somehow, with its back to the wall in the second half of the match, New Zealand survived.
After winning the World Cup at its first attempt in 1987, going through that tournament unbeaten as it did again this year, New Zealand was beaten in the final in 1995, the semifinals in 1991, 1999 and 2003 and in the quarterfinals—by France—in 2007.
Henry was coach and McCaw captain in that 2007 defeat—the earliest exit in New Zealand's World Cup history—and both snatched their chance on Sunday to make a complete and public atonement for that failure.
New Zealand held out France, through resolution and through discipline which ensured it didn't give up a penalty in the match's dying stages.
“Between the 70th and the 80th I saw things in the ruck ... I knew (referee Craig Joubert) wouldn't blow up for,” France prop Fabien Barcella said. “He wouldn't have been able to leave the country otherwise. We knew we needed a dropped goal or a try, we knew full well that he wasn't going to give us a penalty in the last minutes.”