|Woodcock scored the opening try as the All Blacks won the World Cup for the first time since 1987 [GALLO/GETTY]|
For five excruciating minutes, Eden Park was waiting for the heartbreak.
New Zealand were just a point in front as the French completed phase after phase with the ball in hand, each one of them carrying the danger of the referee’s raised arm, poised like a guillotine to signal a penalty and the end of the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup hopes.
In the end, it was the men in black who played executioner, as they won back possession and drove upfield and out of the peril that a three-point kicking chance would have put them in.
The French revolution at this World Cup had almost been accomplished as their captain, Thierry Dusautoir, scored a second-half try that was converted by Francois Trinh-Duc.
But it wasn’t quite enough to overhaul New Zealand, who had taken an eight-point lead a minute earlier when replacement fly half Stephen Donald squeezed in a 46th-minute penalty to add to Tony Woodcock’s first-half try.
Sixty thousand fans erupted in celebration at the final whistle as the players jumped and danced on the pitch, their 8-7 win bringing an end to 24 years since they last won rugby’s greatest prize.
“It was unreal. We just defended and defended and just held them out. At times we were stretched, but I guess the heart of the guys came through,” said Woodcock.
|Thierry Dusautoir went over the line as a battling France cranked up the pressure [GALLO/GETTY]|
“Throughout that last 20 minutes, I definitely had thoughts of what happened in 2007 running through my head. It was just desperation, really.”
France had ended Kiwi hopes four years ago when they knocked the All Blacks out in the quarter-finals, and they nearly did it again on Sunday with a prize-fighting performance that did little to back up their reputation for flair and everything to commend them as big-match players.
Such was the pressure they exerted in the later stages that many in the crowd who had expected an All Blacks try-fest were left praying that the French didn’t get their noses in front.
Some had also reacted negatively when Donald warmed up to replace the injured Aaron Cruden.
But the Chiefs number 10 did what scrum half Piri Weepu had failed to do in three kicking attempts, firing a penalty just inside the right hand post to give the All Blacks what would prove to be a life-saving eight-point lead.
“There are people out there who undermined my status as an All Black,” said Donald, who was called into the squad after Dan Carter and Colin Slade both suffered groin injuries.
“To get the chance to prove that I am an All Black is good. I think a World Cup Final is a pretty good place to start.
“I haven’t kicked a ball in about six weeks. At the time I didn’t think it would be important, but it turned out that way.”
Centre Ma’a Nonu said Donald had overcome criticism to step up at the crucial moment.
“It’s funny how the world works,” he said.
“He was at the bottom of the ladder, lots of haters getting him down, but he came through, kicked that goal and won us the World Cup.”
For France, a third final appearance ended as the others had, in defeat.
But after losing to New Zealand and to Tonga in the group stages, they proved themselves worthy of a place in the final and sowed considerable doubt in the minds of their opponents.
Dusautoir, who was named man-of-the-match, said his team hadn’t had quite enough in the tank to finish the job after his try.
“It felt good and I was glad I was near the posts for the conversion. There was still lots of time left. We had to pressure them and we did not do enough to get the points,” he said.
“At one point we were so close to them that they wanted to kiss the New Zealanders but I told them to take it easy”
Thierry Dusautoir, France captain
“Tonight everyone was nervous. There were 30 guys on the pitch and they were all scared.”
One thing that didn’t scare the French was the All Blacks’ haka, which they faced down by advancing upon it halfway through.
“At one point we were so close to them that they wanted to kiss the New Zealanders but I told them to take it easy,” said Dusautoir.
“It was a great moment and a great story.”
New Zealand coach Graham Henry bows out after two World Cups with the team, while France’s Marc Lievremont also gives way.
Richie McCaw, the captain who lifted the Webb Ellis trophy after a record-breaking 103rd All Blacks Test cap, said their usual flowing style had to be forsaken in pursuit of victory.
“It wasn’t the prettiest performance, but we had to have courage and the desire to win,” he said.
“The boys put a lot of effort into getting into this position and we didn’t want to let it go. Last week (against Australia) we played the rugby we know we can play, and today was about hanging in there.
“I take my hat off to all the men.”