World Cup finals hardly ever become the try-scoring fests of earlier parts of the tournament. This one was no different as the All Blacks scraped home by 8-7, in front of a sold-out Eden Park. By STYLI CHARALAMBOUS.
The home team went into this match as overwhelming favourites, having trounced the French in the pool stages 37-17 and their opponents having defied the odds, and themselves, to reach the final.
The World Cup campaign for the home team was “A team of 4 million”, an effort to get the entire nation behind the All Blacks as they attempted to lift the cup for a second time on home soil. Not that New Zealanders need extra motivation to support the All Blacks, mind you.
The biggest question going into the final was, which French team would arrive for the final. The bungling team whose minds and on-field performances were blighted by team infighting or the mercurial team that had destroyed All Black World Cup ambitions twice before.
After some nervous opening encounters that saw the All Blacks gain a slight ascendency, a brilliant set-piece move from an attacking lineout saw a deep throw to Jerome Kaino pop the ball into the charging hands of Tony Woodcock. With the French preparing for a drive of the back off the lineout, a gap the size of Kimberley’s Big Hole opened up for the unstoppable 118kg prop to crash over for a try in the 15th minute.
Photo: New Zealand All Blacks players congratulate teammate Tony Woodcock (L) after he scored a try during their Rugby World Cup final match against France at Eden Park in Auckland October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
At this stage, fans with black painted faces would have been expecting the team in white to fade away as the home team were spurred on by 60,000 vocal fans packed into Eden Park in Auckland. But the French had other plans as the try only seemed to spur them on as they fought bravely to claw back possession and territorial advantage.
The curse of the black number 10 jersey claimed its third victim when Aaron Cruden limped off the field in the 33rd min, to be replaced by Waikato's Stephen Donald.
With Piri Weepu suffering the goalkicking hoodoo of so many other kickers in the tournament, the French trailed by only 5 points as both teams made their way to the halftime change rooms.
The first half was never a great spectacle of rugby, but the match came to life in the second half as the French challenge grew when they began to believe this All Black team was beatable.
The home team extended their lead to 8-0 when Donald stepped up to land what could go down as the three most important points in New Zealand’s rugby history. Not bad for someone who just two weeks ago wouldn’t have dreamed of even playing in a World Cup, as he resided to being fourth-choice flyhlaf for New Zealand.
Photo: France captain Thierry Dusautoir (L) scores a try against New Zealand All Blacks during their Rugby World Cup final match at Eden Park in Auckland October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Until that point, matters of territory and possession were largely equal, but the French team, led heroically by captain and IRB player of the year nominee, Thierry Dusautoir, began to control proceedings. A midfield break by replacement flyhalf, François Trinh-Duc, offloaded to supporting players Aurélien Rougerie and Dimitri Yachvilli, ended up in the hands of Dusautoir again to crash over next to the uprights in the 48th min. When Trinh-Duc added the conversion, the game was placed on a knife’s edge at 8-7 with half an hour to go.
It’s credit to both teams’ discipline and temperament that between both sides, only one further transgression in penalty kickable range, transpired for the remainider of the match. Kiwi fans in the stadium and those sitting nervously in front of television sets around the world would have been anxiously counting down the clock as the French dominated the final quarter of the match, following Trinh-Duc's penaty miss in the 66th min. Man-of-the-match, Dusautoir, and his team deserve credit for making a mockery of those (us included) who predicted a 20-point hiding for the French.
Photo: France players react after losing their Rugby World Cup final match against New Zealand All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland October 23, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray
In the end, the French would beat New Zealand in every statistic except the one that counted. They had more ball, more field advantage and claimed more lineouts than the home team, as the All Blacks perilously clung to a slender one point lead for 30 minutes.
When scrumhalf Andy Ellis kicked the ball into the stand after 80 min, it signalled the end of the match, the tournament and 24 agonisingly long years of waiting, for the team that has dominated world rugby to reclaim the Webb Ellis trophy.
The final whistle sparked spectacular scenes of celebration as fireworks illuminated the Auckland skyline that would keep streets filled with party revellers for hours, if not days. Just as in 1995, when it seemed the home team was destined to win the World Cup, so too did the All Blacks in front of their proud rugby-addicted nation.
As with every tournament, there will be talking points and turning points that will be permanently etched in the minds of teams that didn’t get to lift the trophy. As another intriguing episode of Rugby World Cup concludes, rugby fans will look back to the brave decisions made by the New Zealand Rugby Union when they decided to keep faith in coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw after their unceremonious exit from the 2007 tournament.
To the All Blacks and the people of New Zealand, congratulations on a fine win and successful hosting of the tournament. Here’s to England, 2015. DM
France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 20 Jean-Marc Doussain, 21 François Trinh-Duc, 22 Damien Traille.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Richard Kahui, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brad Thorn, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
Main photo: New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw holds up the Webb Ellis Cup as his teammates celebrate after they beat France to win the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park in Auckland October 23, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray