All Blacks on top of the world again after Carter signs off with another masterclass
New Zealand 34 Australia 17
New Zealand are world champions for the third time, becoming the first side to retain the trophy. It was the result that most would have predicted before the tournament, but it is never that simple, and so it proved in this pulsating final, probably the best of all the eight finals so far, as a wonderfully brave Australia somehow crawled back into the game having been 21-3 down early in the second half.
The reason New Zealand prevailed? Because at fly-half, they had a chap called Dan Carter, who reserved one of his finest performances for his first final and his last Test. He was simply magnificent. When all around him were wobbling after Australia had scored two tries while Ben Smith was in the sin-bin, and the score was 21-17, Carter dropped a ridiculously difficult goal to ease the nerves. He then kicked a penalty from halfway to put New Zealand out of sight. He kicked 19 points, but also made 12 tackles, more than any other New Zealander.
However, there were sprinklings of gold all across the field after an edgy first half an hour, when both sides were so competitive at the breakdown that the game could not flow. Ma'a Nonu was superb, as was his partner, Conrad Smith, for a half. Nehe Milner-Skudder was so sharp and the truly great Richie McCaw did not disappoint in his final performance either.
For Australia, Kurtley Beale had an astounding match when he arrived after 26 minutes to replace the concussed Matt Giteau and all their backline were lively and sharp at times, especially in the second half. David Pocock and Michael Hooper were again influential, but in that calamitous first half, Australia's lineout was poor and they were not able to find enough good position from which to work.
They went 3-0 behind to a Carter penalty and were grateful then when Ben Smith knocked on under no pressure. Owen Franks was pinged at the resultant scrum, and Bernard Foley kicked the penalty.
It was still all New Zealand at this stage, though, and when Sekope Kepu tackled Carter late, you sensed the All Blacks would make something of the position. But yet again, Australia were very good at the breakdown, turning the ball over twice in quick succession, with Scott Fardy making the second. Carter was soon the victim of another dangerous tackle, this time around the neck, and this time Carter kicked the goal. Australia second row Kane Douglas, formerly of Leinster, had gone off with a knee injury after just 14 minutes and they lost a second player as Giteau departed for a head injury assessment after injuring himself trying to tackle Brodie Retallick. Giteau, rightly, did not return. He looked in a bad way.
Things began to open up a little as Beale so nearly escaped, but for an excellent tackle by Nonu. And then Milner-Skudder put Jerome Kaino away on the right - even though the pass looked well forward - before Will Genia was penalised for offside. Carter kicked the penalty from the fiendishly difficult angle. It was 9-3. Then just before the break came the first try. It was wonderfully worked by the All Blacks, who were patient and precise as they relentlessly attacked Australia's left flank, even if there may have been an accidental offside in the build-up. First of all, hooker Dane Coles, who is seriously quick, was set free, and then a couple of phases later, Conrad Smith found himself in space. He turned inside and Aaron Smith looped around him to feed McCaw, who put Milner-Skudder in at the corner.
It was a clinical score, created by some stunning handling. Carter converted magnificently from the touchline, and it was 16-3 at half-time. Just as they had done last weekend, New Zealand emerged from the changing rooms early for the second half to run through some drills. But last week they had been in some bother against South Africa. This time, there was no such problem.
Conrad Smith was replaced during the break by Sonny Bill Williams, who made an immediate impact, with two lovely offloads in the tackle, the second of which put Nonu in some space on Australia's 10-metre line. He stepped past Beale as he ran across the field and then held off Drew Mitchell's tackle to score a stupendous try. Carter missed the conversion, but the game appeared to be already over at 21-3, only four minutes into the second half.
It was certainly the cue for some pulsating action. New Zealand destroyed Australia at a scrum and it appeared that Milner-Skudder was away. But then Beale intercepted, and it appeared that he was away. He was not, but Australia suddenly showed their best attacking stuff of the match. Foley and Adam Ashley Cooper went close before Ben Smith tip-tackled Mitchell and was shown a yellow card.
Australia kicked to the corner and drove hard at the lineout. There was no stopping them, and Pocock was the beneficiary. Foley kicked the conversion. It was 21-10. The Wallabies sensed their opportunity, going through nine phases, but New Zealand's defence was sufficiently organised that they were awarded a penalty as the Australians held on, although referee Nigel Owens could easily have gone back for a high tackle by Kaino. However, Australia would not cave in, with Ben Smith still in the sin-bin. Milner-Skudder did not clear his lines well enough and when Beale ran back, Genia spotted the empty acres and kicked into them for Foley to chase and collect. The fly-half passed inside to Tevita Kuridrani, who ran across towards the posts for a breathtaking score. Foley converted. It was 21-17, with 15 minutes remaining.
We had a game on our hands. But guess what happened? From nowhere on the Australian 10-metre line, Carter, with no time and no space, stepped on to his left foot and kicked the most insouciant of dropped goals. At this moment, under this pressure. It was remarkable. And it was 24-17. Australia were then penalised at the scrummage near halfway. The result? Carter was never missing, even though it appeared out of his usual range.
The gloss was added by a brilliant try from replacement Beauden Barrett, after Mitchell had knocked on in New Zealand's 22 and Ben Smith had collected and kicked ahead. Barrett got there first and hacked on before the ball bounced up kindly. Carter converted. It was fitting that a true great delivered a great ending to a great tournament.
Scorers - New Zealand: Milner-Skudder, Nonu, Barrett try each; Carter 5 pens, 2 cons. Australia: Pocock, Kuridrani try each; Foley pen, 2 cons.
New Zealand: B Smith; Milner-Skudder, C Smith, Nonu, Savea; Carter, A Smith, Moody, Coles, O Franks, Retallick, Whitelock, Kaino, McCaw, Read. Replacements: Barrett for Milner-Skudder (64), Williams for C Smith (41), Kerr-Barlow for A Smith (71), B Franks for Moody (58), Mealamu for Coles (65), Faumuina for O Franks (54), Vito for Kaino (71), Cane for McCaw (80).
Australia: Folau; Ashley-Cooper, Kuridrani, Giteau, Mitchell; Foley, Genia; Sio, Moore, Kepu, Douglas, Simmons, Fardy, Hooper, Pocock. Replacements: Beale for Giteau (26), Toomua for Mitchell (65), Phipps for Genia (65), Slipper for Sio (58), Polota-Nau for Moore (55), Holmes for Kepu (58), Mumm for Douglas (15), McCalman for Fardy (60).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).