MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day newspaper column, applauds New Zealand’s defensive effort in the World Cup final.
France earned the respect of all New Zealanders and the All Blacks surely earned the respect of the rugby world.
You cannot begrudge the All Blacks their moment, and you also cannot deny captain Richie McCaw his finest 80 minutes as an international player. He is finally a world champion.
France captain Thierry Dusautoir was the player of the match but it was the player of the past decade (McCaw) who got gold on the night.
Some may say the rugby gods have a heart, especially if you remember McCaw’s night — and face — at the 2007 World Cup in Cardiff four years ago when France beat the All Blacks 20-18.
McCaw and the All Blacks deserved the win. Not just because of their defensive effort on the night, but because of what they have dealt with at this tournament — expectation, pressure and injury setbacks.
Home-ground advantage is big in any tournament but in World Cups it has been a curse. New Zealand are the first host nation to win the World Cup in the professional era and they did it with their fourth choice at flyhalf, Stephen Donald, for the final 45 minutes.
They did it without Dan Carter and they did it with McCaw playing the entire tournament with a foot injury that will require surgery.
It is easy to forget the obstacles New Zealand had to overcome because of France’s effort but it would be doing the defensive quality of this final a disservice.
France had offered nothing at this tournament. They had been awful and had been beaten twice in the league stages. They were told they were a disgrace to the romance of French rugby and the World Cup heroics of their predecessors. But they are France and with the French you never know who gets out of bed, let alone who pitches up to play a game of rugby.
They are also players who believe the only rugby experience better than playing the All Blacks is beating them. I can’t applaud their effort enough. Then again neither can I that of the All Blacks.
France’s intensity spooked the All Blacks four years ago, but this time New Zealand were prepared for the physicality of France, and to a man they backed their defensive system and backed the bloke on the inside and the outside to make his tackle. This is a team that trusted in each other as much as each guy did himself.
France were monstrous in the collisions. Dusautoir played the game of his life. France played more intelligently than they have all tournament, and like a team with a plan.
France played from set piece to set piece, limited idiotic decision-making in their own half and played like a team with the belief that they could strangle New Zealand up front and outkick them.
This was raw passion from France. They played for their honour, their dignity and the right to be World Cup champions, but they never had the attacking threat to match either the power of their pack or the intent of their minds. It has been their Achilles heel all tournament.
The All Blacks in the professional era have always been accused of not respecting winning ugly. They did that at Eden Park and their defensive effort was monumental.
France will get many accolades because they defied the belief that the All Blacks would win easily, but if the adage is true that World Cups are won on defence, then New Zealand are deserved winners.
There were heroes on both sides and thankfully no villains, even though All Black Piri Weepu would probably have had to emigrate if France had been the champions.
Weepu missed two penalties, a conversion and kick-started France’s solitary try with a chip kick that landed in a French hand and ended in seven points for France.
He also suffered at the base of the scrum because of the French effort, more than the New Zealand lack of effort, but when the battered All Black forwards had to produce their biggest effort of the last four years they did so in the last four minutes of the World Cup final. They kept the ball for three minutes, forced the penalty and won the game that for the people of New Zealand was so much more than a rugby result.
And it was as if the rugby gods were reminding all of New Zealand about humility. New Zealand would win it by a point to make a point.
Crushing the French would have resulted in New Zealand arrogance and perhaps another 24-year wait for the gold cup.
But to be in Auckland last night was to know there was nothing blasé about this New Zealand celebration.
There was just relief and recognition that attack wins you the Tri-Nations but defence wins you the World Cup.