independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

New Zealand resist French fire to end 24 years of hurt

New Zealand 8 France 7

Richie McCaw lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy at Eden Park yesterday

A nation would have gone into collective meltdown if this one had slipped by and, boy, it so nearly did.

How close, how gripping and how utterly absorbing this match was, the best World Cup final there has been, full of character, sinew and dramatic uncertainty.

And at the end, there was the promised land for New Zealand to claim, territory that this entire country has craved since the inaugural tournament was won at this venue 24 years ago.

If the 1987 final was the routine coronation of the finest side of that (and perhaps any) era, then this was a true contest. Any concerns that this game would be a one-sided dud were dismissed even before a ball had been kicked.

From the moment that France advanced on the haka in an arrow-shaped formation, hands linked with Thierry Dusautoir as the spearhead, the underdogs played with deep-rooted passion as well as cleverness.

They so nearly pulled it off. To the losers, the critical acclaim, to the victors the spoils. There is no doubt who got the better deal.

There was little glory in the manner of the All Blacks victory but at the end they had the pot, and that was all that mattered.

No wonder the New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, leant across to touch the cherished trophy when asked for his views on the match. He did not need to say anything. He touched the gleaming cup once again. That was what it was all about.

It had taken graft rather than genius, fortitude rather than flair, proof that this was a team of many parts. In times past, the All Blacks had choked when the going got tough. Twice in previous World Cups, France had proved the bogeymen. Here, New Zealand trembled but they did not collapse in a heap.

The All Blacks were obliged to hang on grimly, and if referee Craig Joubert had not been so generous to the host nation, then perhaps France might have completed the transformation from pool-stage chumps to champs.

If Francois Trinh-Duc's 48-metre penalty in the 65th minute had not drifted just right. If Morgan Parra had not taken a knee to the head from Richie McCaw and been forced off. 'If only', as ever, is the inscription on the medals of the losers.

France's back-row of Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire and the nonpareil Dusautoir trumped their celebrated counterparts, their set-piece became more and more dominant, and centre Aurelien Rougerie hammered every black shirt that came his way.

But it was not enough, and given that Wales had fallen by the same margin to France last week in the semi-final in similar circumstances, perhaps there was a perverse justice in it all.

While France were the unlikely heroes of the match, those being acclaimed last night were the All Blacks, but this was not their finest performance.

They lacked composure and were exposed at the line-out. They were fortunate to get an early try from the unheralded source of prop Tony Woodcock, who steamed through a gaping hole in the France line-out to touch down in the 15th minute.

There was a suspicion of jiggery-pokery at the line-out, some obstruction to clear a space, but they got away with it.

It was not so much that the All Blacks were on edge, paralysed by the expectation heaped on them, but that they were rocked by a France side that we had not seen for 18 months, never mind the past seven weeks.

There was also a sub-standard showing from scrum-half Piri Weepu, who missed eight points through missed kicks and was eventually hauled off in the 49th minute.

Their injury jinx at out-half also continued as they had to bring on fourth-choice Stephen Donald after Aaron Cruden suffered a knee injury on 34 minutes. Bath-bound Donald kicked the winning goal from in front of the posts in the 45th minute.

So often we have lauded the brilliance and sparkle of these All Blacks. Here it was time to salute their fibre and bloody-mindedness, their refusal to fold when under pressure, their trust in each other and in the cause.

All that was shown when France came at them with sustained ferocity early in the second half.

New Zealand were on the ropes after Dusautoir touched down in the 46th minute, the try stemming from an opportunist attack triggered by an interception from Trinh-Duc.

The replacement out-half converted, and the comeback was in motion. The All Blacks still had a one-point advantage but they appeared flaky up front and vulnerable behind. France grew in stature, with Harinordoquy all-consuming and the scrum beginning to take a toll.

Yet New Zealand survived. Perhaps the experience of 2007 helped get them through, the fear of feeling that desolation again.

Perhaps it was destiny. More likely, it was a combination of good fortune and steadfast defence.

France had minor openings but could not capitalise. New Zealand gained territory then ran down the clock with close-quarter drives.

It was pragmatic, restrictive and negative yet the crowd, the country, did not give a damn.

The time ticked past the allotted mark, a penalty was awarded, McCaw took a breath, Andy Ellis booted the ball high into the stands and bedlam broke out across the land. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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