JON CARDINELLI, reporting from Eden Park, watched the All Blacks beat France 8-7 to secure their second World Cup title.
Four million New Zealanders have had to endure 24 long years in between World Cup titles. On Sunday 23 October, they had to endure a further 80 agonising minutes as their beloved All Blacks edged slowly and, at times tentatively, towards the elusive gold.
The energy of a nation was channeled in the New Zealand national anthem, and the All Blacks played their part with a spirited rendition of Kapa o Pango. France responded through Thierry Dusautoir’s passionate gesture during the Tricolores’ call-to-arms, and through the team’s decision to advance towards the hosts while they laid down the traditional challenge.
The message was clear: France would not be intimidated by the All Blacks, their media or the New Zealand people’s pre-match assertion that they had no place in this final. Their march on the All Blacks would signify a collective up-yours to all the non-believers, and their efforts in this match would underscore their passion and belief that they could indeed upset the world’s top-ranked team.
It was this fiery attitude and physicality that had the All Blacks rattled at stages. Tony Woodcock scored a simple try for the hosts when a smart lineout move opened up the French defence, but Piri Weepu failed to make the conversion. In fact, Weepu would miss all three of his attempts at goal and the All Blacks would miss out on eight points as a result. It was this lack of composure that so nearly cost the hosts the game.
The All Blacks were resolute on defence, but then so were the French. They matched the hosts at the collisions which limited the All Blacks’ attacking platform. Morgan Parra stopped Ma’a Nonu from breaching the gain line early in the first half, and paid the price for his bravery. He was able to return to the field for a brief spell but was later pulled when he failed to recover from what was a big knock.
The All Blacks would lose their own flyhalf before the first period was through. Aaron Cruden was caught between two French defenders in the 34th minute, and proceeded to hyper-extend his knee. Suddenly the All Blacks were without Cruden, their third-choice pivot, and looking to Stephen Donald, a player who wasn’t even in the country until a couple of weeks previously. If the All Blacks were going to pull this one off, the forgotten man of New Zealand rugby would have to steer them home.
Donald relieved Weepu of the goal-kicking duties and took his first opportunity early in the second half. But the 8-0 deficit did little to dampen the spirits of the French, who continued to clatter into the collisions and breakdowns with masochistic intensity.
They also persisted with their ball-in-hand tactics, and their searing counter-attacks stretched the All Blacks on numerous occasions. It was one such counter-punch that would provide the spark for a massive moment, which Dusautoir took expertly to help close the gap to 8-7.
It was during this time that the All Blacks must have been thinking about the failures of the World Cup teams of yesteryear. Weepu had shown a lack of composure in the first half through his inability to convert three very kickable opportunities, and as the French swelled with confidence, the All Blacks grew frantic.
It was a situation tailor-made for the French, and undoubtedly a worse-case scenario for the hosts.
But as plucky as the French were, they were just as erratic as in previous matches at this tournament. Credit should go to the All Blacks defence, but had France shown more composure and patience with ball-in-hand, they may have taken the lead and inspired some real panic in the New Zealand ranks. Had they converted their own goal-kicking chances, they would have assumed control as the clock wound down.
Dimitri Yachvili missed a penalty attempt early in the second stanza, and Trinh-Duc pushed a long attempt wide in the 65th minute. The replacement flyhalf also made a telling mistake when he overcooked a garryowen late in the game. It marked the end of long spell where France had pinned the hosts deep in their own territory.
It was during the remaining minutes that the All Blacks, spurred on by the thousands of desperate but patriotic Kiwis in the crowd, showed their composure. Through the determined efforts of their forwards and the collective discipline on defence, they were able to douse the French flame.
France swept from side to side for several minutes in hope of milking the penalty that would win them the game, but the All Blacks stood firm. They won the turnover, and attempted to play for time, and when referee Craig Joubert handed them a penalty, it signified the beginning of the end.
The All Blacks won the ensuing lineout and another penalty after mauling the French back, and at this point, Eden Park erupted in celebration. It will not be remembered as the most convincing performance, but it will be remembered as the day the All Blacks ended a 24-year drought and assumed the mantle of undisputed champions of the world.