New Zealand 8-7 France, Rugby World Cup Final, October 23
All Blacks achieve crowning glory
Graham Jenkins at Eden Park
October 23, 2011
Richie McCaw holds aloft the World Cup © Getty Images
It wasn't pretty, but no one in New Zealand will be complaining. The job is done and the wait is over. New Zealand are officially the best team in the world - but only just.
A France side that many would have you believe are a spent force, bankrupt of ideas and lacking in team spirit, produced a superb display to rattle the supposed 'unshakeables' and very nearly gatecrashed their World Cup party. A classy New Zealand side rolled with the punches and showed their true colours to prevail in contest that could have escaped them - but crucially didn't.
History taught New Zealand to be wary of France, especially on a World Cup stage, but even they will have been surprised by their rivals' ability to conjure such a dramatic reversal in form. This was a totally different side to the one that the All Blacks crushed 37-17 in the Pool stages and then went on to lose to Tonga. The France side that rediscovered some spark against England in the quarter-finals and rode its luck against Wales in the semi-finals was still a poor imitation of the team that went toe-to-toe for 80 minutes with the red-hot favourites on a memorably tense night at Eden Park.
New Zealand have embraced their previous high profile failures as part of their planning for this tournament and it has paid off. The lessons learned in defeat at the quarter-final stage to France in 2007, and for some the 2003 semi-final loss to Australia, have served them well. There was never any panic even when yet another fly-half - the desperately unlucky Aaron Cruden - was struck down with a nasty-looking knee injury.
Robbed of one key playmaker, they saw the form of another, the equally influential scrum-half Piri Weepu, desert him at the worst possible time. 'Stay calm, Piri's on'? No chance, when he is spraying kicks left and right of the posts and sending restarts straight into touch.
A few months ago the prospect of Stephen Donald being New Zealand's match winner would have been laughable. Cast aside by the All Blacks at the end of last year with widespread criticism ringing in his ears, Donald accepted his international future was over and opted to sign for Premiership side Bath. But fate intervened as injuries struck down first-choice fly-half Dan Carter and then Colin Slade before Cruden joined them on the sidelines after just 33 minutes of this nail-biter.
In the space of two weeks, Donald went from happily indulging his hobby of white baiting in the backwaters of New Zealand to kicking the All Blacks to World Cup glory. No player has ever enjoyed such a dramatic reversal of fortune and he will be pinching himself for years to come. As he is northern hemisphere bound his All Blacks career appears over due to New Zealand's strict selection criteria, but what a way to go!
There were other noteworthy performances, with captain Richie McCaw's bloodied face a testament to a hard night at the coal face where he had a willing and able cohort in the form of No.8 Kieran Read. Flanker Jerome Kaino was not afforded the time and space to cause his usual carnage, while the industry of centre Ma'a Nonu's and fullback Israel Dagg was admirable but brought little reward in the face of a determined French defence. This was not a day for headline-grabbing individual displays, this was a time for New Zealand to underline why they are the best team in the world. No other side could weather the turmoil they have faced in recent weeks and remain as focused and resolute.
Ravaged by yet more injuries and the poor form of key personnel, the All Blacks' resilience was astounding. The team's discipline was particularly impressive as a fired-up French pack piled on the pressure late in the second half. Desperate to force an opening or at least draw a penalty that would give them the lead, France left empty-handed, frustrated by an All Blacks side that refused to buckle. There was not even a hint of an infringement, with the players' trust in each other, ability to stick to patterns and discipline the foundation of a victory that will rank among the greats. That faith comes with experience, good and bad, so for once the nation can be thankful for the previous heartache they have suffered.
Of the four nominees for the International Rugby Board's Player of the Year honour on show, France's Thierry Dusautoir was the stand out performer. Hailed this week for his leadership qualities and his ability to galvanise an under-fire squad, the inspirational flanker led by example with an all-action display. From the controversial response to the Haka to his side's desperate attempts to rescue the game in the dying moments of the contest, his commitment could not be questioned. He may not have reached the heights of his mind-blowing showing against the All Blacks four years ago but this display underlined his status as one of the world's greats.
There were others who helped restore our faith in French rugby with centre Aurelien Rougerie, hooker William Servat and No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy among those to rise to the occasion. Together they dominated the All Blacks for long periods but just could not work an opening or generate enough breathing space to land the drop goal that looked so likely at one stage. It was not to be their day. Their ability to dig deep when it really mattered made for an enthralling contest but they were beaten by a side with even greater character.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.