The All Blacks pointed to lessons from previous World Cup failures as central to their desperate resistance in the closing stages of the final.
After the All Blacks dominated the first half, France launched an immense counter-strike in the second, bossing possession and territory as they went in search of an upset victory.
New Zealand have folded when faced with that sort of onslaught at World Cups in the past, and there were times when they looked likely to succumb once more. However, their defence proved to be nothing sort of heroic, repelling wave after wave of attacks and scrambling brilliantly on the rare occasions they slipped tackles.
There was consensus as to the root of their success: lessons had been learned and the response was fitting.
‘The way we defended in that second half said a lot about the men in this team, many of whom had prepared a long time for their shot at redemption. We weren’t going to let it go,’ captain Richie McCaw said. ‘When they scored their try, that was the real test for us. We didn’t panic. Past experience helped our reaction. We stayed disciplined, composed and focussed on the moment [as opposed to the result].’
Coach Graham Henry said: ‘The players have become self-reliant in the years between this World Cup and the last and taken ownership of this team. Those things primarily helped us tonight. I don’t think that this side would have hung in there like they did two or three years ago. That is testament to our growth.’
Henry agreed that the decision to retain him and his assistants, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, despite their quarter-final defeat to France in Cardiff in 2007, bore fruit.
‘There is often a call for wholesale clean-outs when teams don’t get the results they are expected to, but there are lessons to be learned in defeat that can be invaluable, as they were tonight,’ he said. ‘The players from the 2007 group recognised that and asked for us [the coaching team] to stay on. The NZRU made a tough call then, but, it seems, the right one [in light of the result tonight].’
There were a number of outstanding players who contributed consistently along the way. But Henry described Stephen Donald’s late call-up as a ‘fairytale’ and lauded his contribution in the circumstances. Donald, on in the 35th minute for Aaron Cruden, kicked what proved to be the decisive penalty. Henry said his fourth-choice flyhalf had benefited from an attitude within the squad that promoted the success of every players.
‘Over the last couple of seasons Stephen took some stick from you boys [the media] and some of it was justified. When you come in as late as he did you need an environment to be right. That was the case and that’s why he slotted in without much fuss. The same goes for a guy like Aaron. That’s been one of the most pleasing things about this team.’
Henry also said the belief that pragmatism being the only way to success in the tournament was flawed.
‘We enjoy playing a certain way and we stuck with that belief throughout the tournament, although in the final it was a little different. It’s important that we showed we can play our style and win.’
By Ryan Vrede, at Eden Park