Friday 23 March 2018

Tony Ward: French heart makes for a fitting finale

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Allez La France, Allez Les Bleus. They may have come up just short but Thierry Dusautoir et amis did themselves and the game proud.

Had they won it, few would have begrudged them the ultimate success, and seldom would humble pie have tasted sweeter for us rugby pundits.

It wasn't rugby science, it wasn't classic Gallic flair; it was rugby from the heart. It was bodies-on-the-line stuff, from the response of the French players to the haka right to the final whistle.

It may not have been breathtaking, free-running rugby but it was everything a World Cup final should be: the result was in doubt right up to the very end.

Who would have believed New Zealand would be playing down the clock in a frantic scramble for the winning line?

My faith in French rugby was restored, irrespective of the outcome.

France had appeared out of sorts and lacking in ambition. They lost twice in the pool stages and looked uninterested in the quarter- and semi-finals, so such a performance defied logic.

We prayed they would turn up on the day, and they did.

I found myself, mid-match, wanting the team who -- quite frankly -- did not deserve to be there, to take the golden pot home.

I am delighted for New Zealand folk everywhere that this World Cup obsession has finally been resolved.

There may have been little in it at Eden Park yesterday, but over the course of this past seven weeks, and despite having to field their fourth-ranked out-half in the final, they have been the most complete unit in the tournament.

Ireland pride ourselves in having two No 10s of the highest quality, but what would have happened had both Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton, plus the next in line -- presumably Paddy Wallace -- been ruled out through injury?

Once Dan Carter was in trouble, so too, we suspected, would be New Zealand, but they regrouped and, in the end, lifted the Webb Ellis Cup they unquestionably deserved.

Result aside, New Zealanders will hardly recall much of this final with any great fondness, with the exception of the brilliantly crafted, training pitch-engineered, first-half try touched down by Tony Woodcock.

It was superb in its simplicity and clinical in its execution.

As a tonic to settle the nerves, it was no different to the opening goal in a football World Cup final.

That New Zealand didn't kick on from there was down to pure French heart and desire.

Also a factor was the Kiwis' self-imposed pressure, which was evident in the wayward goal-kicking of Piri Weepu.

One thing I learnt early in my career was to keep a lid on adrenalin when it came to goal-kicking.

When you are playing at the highest level you feel almost invincible. It applies to goal-kicking as much as anything else, so when you get an early penalty at the limit of your range you err on the side of caution.

In going for the posts from close to the touchline near half-way, Weepu was caught in the excitement of the moment.

In trying and missing, he was piling on the pressure for whatever else was to follow.


So it transpired. In the end it took a successful penalty from that fourth-choice No 10 Stephen Donald to see the raging-hot favourites home. Who would have believed it?

The Kiwis had the benefit of Craig Joubert, who was a tad generous to them in some critical decisions at the breakdown.

But credit the French where credit is due.

Their set-piece was top notch, the front five tight and uncompromising and the back-row of Julien Bonnaire, Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy magnifique.

This unit, plus the outstanding Aurelien Rougerie, laid the marker as France made life difficult for New Zealand with intense broken-field physicality all the way through.

Dusautoir, much like David Pocock in the all-Antipodean semi-final, matched the brilliant Richie McCaw, tackle for tackle and ruck for ruck.

It made for a compelling final, entirely befitting the magnitude of the occasion.

As one of my Kiwi friends texted me immediately after the game: "heart attack Tony, that's what finals should be about, glad France turned up!"

Couldn't put it any better than that.

Irish Independent

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