As New Zealand flyhalf Aaron Cruden hobble of the field 33 minutes into Sunday’s Rugby World Cup final in Auckland, seeds of doubt began to sprout in the collective consciousness of the host country.
They’d seen this before. A heavily-favored All Blacks team marching into an elimination game against a less-talented but scrappy France side coughing up an early lead and coming up short.
But this time the All Blacks held strong, fighting off an inspired effort from the French despite three missed kicks. In the end, fourth-string flyhalf Stephen Donald’s penalty proved to be the difference in a more gritty than glamorous 8-7 victory.
As predicted, New Zealand steamrolled its way to the final, beating France on the way. Meanwhile the French lost twice — including a stunning upset defeat to Tonga to close out pool play. But Les Bleus battled through adversity, knocking out England in the quarterfinals and holding off Wales despite not scoring a try in the semifinals.
Tony Woodcock’s 15th minute try off a well-executed lineout gave the All Blacks an early lead, but a pair of missed penalties by Piri Weepu and a missed conversion left New Zealand with a modest 5-0 advantage at halftime.
Donald’s penalty bumped the lead up to 8-0, but France answered one minute later when Thierry Dusautoir scored a try up the middle. Francois Trinh-Duc — a first-half sub for concussed flyhalf Morgan Parra — had a chance to put Les Bleus on top but missed a long penalty wide right and the All Blacks held strong during a furious final charge that included nearly 20 phases.
A quick look at All Blacks captain Richie McCaw post-match showed just how hard New Zealand worked to hoist its first Webb Ellis Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987.
Dried blood speckled McCaw’s face and ears and he walked with a noticeable limp to the podium to receive the trophy for his team.
“I don’t think I’ve been as shattered as that to be honest,” the three-time world player of the year told the New Zealand Herald on Monday. “I don’t know if it was the emotional stuff as well that goes into that game. I’m just so relieved, really, and it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that perhaps I’d realized what we had done, whereas last night it was more relief than anything.”
Relief may have been the most appropriate word to define Sunday’s victory for the host country — the lowest scoring final ever — after so many heart-breaking losses in previous tournaments. But the win also cemented McCaw’s place as one of the sport’s all-time greats, and confirmed the All Blacks place atop rugby’s international ranks once more.
Equally important for the rugby-crazed island nation is the success of the tournament as a whole, which may force the International Rugby Board to reconsider the idea of not hosting future tournaments in a country home to only 4.3 million people.
“It was a great tournament, one of the best ever,” IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said. “Rugby World Cup is not just to make money. It’s also about the rugby reasons, and we have a lot of rugby reasons to come back to New Zealand.”