New Zealand’s All Blacks scraped to victory over Les Bleus of France by the narrowest of margins in a tight, intense Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park in Auckland.
New Zealand had the chance to take the lead in the 6th minute but Piri Weepu looked nervous from the start and his attempt was well wide of the posts. France had started well but they lost their first choice flyhalf, converted scrumhalf Morgan Parra, in the 12th minute after he received a knock to the head. Parra left the field and was replaced by Francois Trinh-Duc, an attacking player who had been shown little trust by coach Marc Lievremont during the tournament.
The All Blacks’ lineout had been wobbly from the start of the game, with Keven Mealamu astray with several of his throws, but after fifteen minutes he hit Jerome Kaino perfectly in an attacking lineout ten metres from the French line. Kaino dropped the ball off the top straight to prop Tony Woodcock, who made it over the line untouched. Weepu was again astray with the conversion, so the lead was 5-0.
New Zealand attacked in waves for the following fifteen minutes, but the French defense held strong and when the All Blacks did find a gap it seemed French captain Thierry Dusatoir was always there to fill it. Les Bleus began to grow in confidence and come into the game more. Then after 34 minutes, New Zealand’s third choice flyhalf of the tournament, Aaron Cruden, wrenched his knee in a tackle and couldn’t continue. Both teams were down to reserve flyhalfs; Stephen Donald was the replacement for the All Blacks.
At the start of the second half French scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili missed a penalty that would have brought France back to within two points; a couple of minutes later, Donald stepped up and took the tee off Weepu for the All Blacks, and landed a penalty that took the margin out to 8-0. But France hit back almost immediately; from scrappy All Black ruck ball, Weepu tried to kick the ball to a team-mate but only found Francois Trinh-Duc. The Frenchman broke downfield, his team kept the ball alive and eventually captain Dusatoir powered over to plant the ball at the base of the post. 8-7 and the French had real belief. For the All Blacks, doubt was creeping in; Weepu kicked the restart out on the full and was immediately removed from the game, replaced by Andy Ellis.
The French took greater and greater control of the game, with the forward pack getting the upper hand and freeing Trinh-Duc who got the backline running at and over the advantage line. New Zealand on the other hand couldn’t get quick ruck ball and their attack suffered as a result. But the All Black defensive line held firm, sometimes with some desperate recoveries, and the French couldn’t manage another score. Trinh-Duc missed a long penalty at 65 minutes and New Zealand defended strongly and cleanly enough to not give Les Bleus another opportunity. The All Blacks closed out the match hanging onto the ball.
This was a match played at tremendous intensity, but without the ball movement and speed of previous games in this tournament. The battle in the forwards was tremendous, with New Zealand perhaps shading it in the first half and France in the second. Scrums went one way and then the other, breakdown turnovers were won by both sides; even the lineouts were close, with France winning three off the All Blacks throw and the All Blacks taking two back. Perhaps the most vital statistic was penalties conceded; France gave away 12 to New Zealand’s 7.
It may not have been a fluent match to draw in the neutral fan, but this was a worthy final played at full intensity between two very good teams. France weren’t expected to run New Zealand this close after losing their pool match by 20 points and also losing to Tonga during the pool stages; but they could and perhaps should have won this final. However, the All Blacks have played some great rugby throughout the tournament and they managed to throw an enormous monkey off their backs. Auckland was rocking throughout the night and all the next day too; an entire nation breathing a gigantic sigh of relief and celebrating a second home World Cup victory.