This was meant to be easy. A dominant All Black team, led by the mighty Richie McCaw and boasting one of the most fearsome scrums in history against France. France the fortunate. France the fluky, even. This was a mismatch in the minds of all but the French, and headlines had already been written about New Zealand capturing the prize that’s evaded them for 24 years.
It was against France in the 1987 final that the Webb Ellis trophy was last in Kiwi hands. And Jesus, did this country want it back. Need it, even. Watching over breakfast from the far side of the world you could feel that need emanating around the Eden Park stadium in Auckland. But this time, this was by no means a foregone conclusion. The 8 – 7 margin tells of the tightest finish since that Wilkinson drop goal in 2003.
This was a game for gentlemen played by warriors and won by heroes. It is telling that the man of the match was French Captain Thierry Dusautoir. It could so easily have been him, not McCaw, lifting the trophy. And it could so easily have been McCaw and the whole New Zealand nation reduced to tears on the touchline.
The Haka was challenged by a flying V of French bodies, moving with intent towards the host’s challenge. In French hearts, this set a tone of aggression and purpose perhaps ignored by Kiwi fans, the media and players alike.
The final itself began nervously, with both sides making errors and showing a stilted style recognisable as French from this tournament but foreign to the previously slick All Blacks. The French started stronger out of the blocks, with aggressive hits and fast recycling across the park. Five minutes in and it was a 12 phase French move that stood out. However an offside infringement allowed Piri Weepu to line up for 3 points.
The hero of the semi final, Weepu looked out of sorts from the off. He has the casual demeanour of a schoolboy number 9 at the best of times, but once again his place kicking was not simply out of sorts, it was positively rubbish. The kick sailed in the general direction of Christchurch. A stadium exhaled nervously.
12 minutes of scrabbly play into the game and Morgan Parra, the French number 10 hit a double whammy. First pummelled in a stereotypical car crash tackle by Ma’a Nonu followed by a McCaw knee to the forehead. Amazingly he was only stunned, but his final was effectively over. After a blood bin period during which the imperious Trinh-Duc took the reins, Parra came back on, but another big hit sent him to the bench for the remainder of the match. Trinh-Duc’s introduction, about seven games too late by most people’s opinion, was immediately noticeable. His incisive running, intelligent kicking and management of the French back line could easily have won his team the title.
On the turn of fifteen minutes, a training ground move at the New Zealand line out five metres from the French line allowed the most unlikely of scorers to lumber over. Trevor Woodcock was more than 60 to 1 to score first with the bookies. But then these are the same bookies who had France at 7 to 1 before the game, so what did they know? Once again, Weepu spooned the conversion to leave the score at 5 nil, and New Zealand’s coaching team wondering who in their whole squad was capable of kicking an oval ball in a straight line.
This did not look like the best team in the world – more some very worried rugby players being handed their arses by a team in its unlikely ascendancy.
A few bursts of brilliance from both sides took the game past the half hour mark and then, disaster. The very able Aaron Cruden, third choice All Black fly half nuked his knee, Jonny Utah style, whilst evading a tackle. He collapsed to the floor and New Zealand winced. In fact, anyone watching the replays winced as the extent of the distension became apparent. Cruden would play no more part, and the chatter focussed on who was left on the bench to play the lynchpin fly half role. Step forward 4th choice Stephen Donald, a player so in demand by the All Black coaching team he was on a fishing trip until two weeks ago.
A missed Trinh-Duc drop goal before half time was costly, but France looked the stronger team. Who could have imagined the All Blacks actively bringing the first half of their home rugby World Cup to an early close with a Weepu kick direct to touch? This did not look like the best team in the world – more some very worried rugby players being handed their arses by a team in its unlikely ascendancy.
The second half in this increasingly hard to call match kicked off with a missed touch from the wobbly Weepu caught by Harinordoquy – making an even stronger case for the scrum player of the tournament. Trinh-Duc was offered a great chance to cut the deficit but his penalty went painfully wide, and it seemed certain that the game was destined to be played on a knife edge in its entirety. A penalty from Donald made it 8 nil on 46 minutes (4th choice? What do you mean 4th choice?!) and fans must have started to breathe more easily, thinking their All Black giants were finally going to turn the screw.
Not a chance.
An attacking move led by an inspired Rougerie and facilitated by a kicking mistake from Weepu opened up the All Black defensive line and allowed Dusautoir to score from close range. He ploughed through two tackles but the intent on his face when he grounded the ball around the uprights would suggest he would have carried a team on his shoulders, such was his intent.
Score 9 – 8, and the home nation must have started to harbour fears that their worst nightmare was being slowly played out by a French team who have taken their game from amateur to sublime through the course of the tournament.
The game was by now firmly a war of attrition, with both sides nervous to concede anything in their own half. Drop kicks have a history in finals, and despite the lacklustre hit rate so far no-one wanted to concede the ground to allow the opposition even the slightest chance to drop at goal. Kicks for territory became the norm. Tackles, if it were possible, became even more intense. Both sides recognised that a plateau of greatness was tantalisingly within reach. But failure lay on all sides.
On 64 minutes, an enormous shove from the French pack popped up the Kiwi front row and penalty! Near enough on the half way line. Trinh-Duc lines up and takes 3 paces. A sporting world held its collective breath. But the kick fell short and wide. New Zealand cleared lines to set up a final ten minutes of harsh, gritty rugby to decide the final. With seconds ticking down, a bloodied McCaw held ball at the foot of maul after maul, ruck after ruck. In desperation as the final seconds ticked over the 80 minutes the mighty Harinordoquy infringed to give away a penalty. French shoulders dropped. All Blacks celebrated. The gritted features of Captain McCaw remained impassive as he instructed the ball to be sent several miles into the Auckland bay.
The match was won, and by deserving victors. A country rejoiced, as a dejected French team collected the bitter pill of a second place medal. Once the pain softens they should be very proud of the spectacle they were a part of. This was a much better conclusion than anyone had predicted.
It wasn’t pretty, but then this isn’t the beautiful game. This is rugby. And what this final has given those fortunate enough to watch it was a masterclass from both sides. The vanquished French have come out gleaming. And the majestic All Blacks have given their fans a much needed celebration after a torrid year.
What a tournament. And what a finale. Rugby fans have much to thank New Zealand for today.
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