New Zealand win tense final to take World Cup crown

By Huw Silk

When referee Craig Joubert blew the final whistle of the Rugby World Cup, one overriding emotion seemed to be prevalent in New Zealand – relief.

The All Blacks have been consistently the best side in the world for decades, but, despite being perennial favourites, have not won the Webb Ellis trophy for 24 years. Now the label of one of sport’s biggest chokers can be laid to rest after an unspectacular but hard-fought – not to mention incredibly tense and compelling – 8-7 victory over France.

Les Bleus looked nothing like the side that lost to Tonga in the pool stage or that struggled to resist 14-man Wales last weekend. This was a team, led by the immense Thierry Dusautoir, which gave the All Blacks – huge favourites going into the match – the fright of their lives. They could easily have won.

But that looked to be very much off the radar when Tony Woodcock dived over the line for the only score of the first half, the prop taking advantage of a huge gap that opened up in the French line-up, as he collected Jerome Kaino’s inside pass.

At that stage, the predictions of an all-too-easy New Zealand win looked like they might materialise. France had dominated the first fifteen minutes, but just as in the sides’ pool stage encounter, failed to capitalise on that pressure – before the All Blacks scored with their first try-scoring opportunity.

Piri Weepu missed the conversion, having already hooked a penalty horribly wide. He would go on to miss another three-pointer, and his performance from the tee was the complete opposite of his metronomic display against Argentina in the quarterfinal, when he kicked seven penalties from seven.

Both sides lost their starting fly halves in a frenetic, physical first period. France’s Morgan Parra took an early knock to the head from the knee of Richie McCaw – debate will rage as to whether or not it was deliberate – and eventually was forced off, sporting a huge black eye by the final whistle.

That incident might be seen by French fans as key but Gallic anger was directed at referee Joubert for his debatable decisions throughout the match. At the scrum in particular, but also at the breakdown in general, France seemed to be penalised far more harshly than the All Blacks. Joubert certainly had been the most impressive referee at the tournament before the final, but a number of question marks remain over key decisions in this match, most of which benefited New Zealand.

Not that the favourites avoided misfortune themselves. Aaron Cruden, who had replaced Dan Carter’s replacement Colin Slade at number 10, himself suffered an injury, forcing veteran Stephen Donald to make his World Cup debut and take over as stand-off – and also seize the kicking responsibilities from the misfiring Weepu.

Donald gave his team an eight-point lead with a penalty at the beginning of the second period, but France responded almost instantly. Francois Trinh-Duc, Parra’s replacement and a genuine fly-half by trade, was excellent all match, and it was his break that led to captain Dusautoir eventually touching down under the posts. Trinh-Duc’s easy conversion left the match finely poised – and with more than half an hour to play, there was tangible fear around Eden Park, reverberating to the strains of La Marseillaise, that another capitulation could be in the offing.

But the All Blacks dug deep. In what was after all the lowest-scoring final of all time (and also the joint-second lowest-scoring World Cup match ever), defence dominated. The threat New Zealand’s backs have posed consistently during this tournament was largely nullified by the French, whose tenacity in the tackle had paid such dividends against Wales.

However, the All Blacks themselves were solid, particularly so when the lead had been cut to a single point. They had to be, as France, desperate even for a penalty (Trinh-Duc did push a long-ranger wide) dominated possession in the last twenty minutes but made little headway in terms of advancing beyond the hosts’ 10-metre line.

When the ball was eventually turned over after a long period of French toil, New Zealand, in a reflection of both the hard-fought nature of the match and the weight taken off the nature’s collective shoulders, were content to run down the five remaining minutes very tamely.

At the end of 24 years of All Black World Cup pain, whatever sympathy for the French effort was banished by the emotion of the achievement. This triumph comes towards the close of a turbulent year for this small outpost in the south Pacific – a mining disaster, the catastrophic Christchurch earthquake – and will unite a nation in ecstasy. From that point of view, no-one can truly begrudge New Zealand this victory – and from a purely on-the-field perspective, there can be no complaints that the best team in the world has finally won back the crown they deserve.

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