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All Blacks Fourth-Choice Fly-Half Helps Break World Cup Drought

New Zealand needed fourth-choice fly-half Stephen Donald to kick the decisive penalty in the 8-7 Rugby World Cup final win over France that ended the host nation’s 24-year gap between titles.

Donald came off the bench six minutes before half time when starting playmaker Aaron Cruden injured his knee. His 46th-minute penalty put New Zealand 8-0 up at Auckland’s Eden Park last night and the All Blacks held on after France pulled within a point with 31 minutes to go.

“I had a thought during the week when he came in that he could easily end up kicking the goal that would be the difference,” New Zealand captain Richie McCaw told reporters. “A couple of weeks ago he wouldn’t have dreamed of being in a World Cup final. He got to play 50 minutes of it. He did his job.”

Donald’s penalty from about 30 meters out in front of the posts was one of only two successful kicks at goal in last night’s final. Both teams missed two penalties, while New Zealand scrum-half Piri Weepu also put a conversion wide.

Donald, 27, was the third injury replacement called up to the All Blacks’ 30-man World Cup squad as the demands of playing seven games on consecutive weekends led to player attrition. First choice fly-half Dan Carter, the leading points scorer in elite Tests, injured his groin during practice before a pool match while his backup Colin Slade and full-back Mils Muliaina got injured in the quarterfinal win over Argentina.

‘Never Gave Up’

Donald’s appearance in the final was his first match for the All Blacks since Nov. 2010, when he featured against Scotland on the team’s tour of the U.K. and Ireland. The selectors were criticized by New Zealand media for picking him ahead of Cruden and Slade as Carter’s backup less than a year out from the World Cup.

“I never gave up on that dream,” Donald said last night. “When I got called into the squad the dream got closer to being a reality.”

The callup from coach Graham Henry less than two weeks before yesterday’s final caught him by surprise, and under-prepared. He was net fishing for whitebait, a task that often requires long vigils on river banks.

“My preparation hasn’t been ideal,” he said. “When you go whitebaiting you usually take a couple of beers with you. So my fitness was probably not what it could have been.”

Donald’s crucial contribution justified the faith shown in him by All Blacks management, Henry said.

‘Team Person’

“He’s a tremendous team person,” Henry told reporters. “It was just great that he could come through and kick that goal and play some good football in the second half.”

New Zealand and France scored one try each in the final. Donald, who will join English club Bath after the tournament, took over the kicking after Weepu also missed two penalties in the first half.

France fly-half Morgan Parra also left the field in the first half following two collisions. His replacement Francois Trinh-Duc converted Thierry Dusautoir’s try before missing a 49-meter penalty that would have given France the lead.

The All Blacks held the French off the rest of the way and the forwards wound the clock down to secure New Zealand’s second title after also beating France in 1987 at Eden Park.

“Stephen Donald was incredible tonight,” All Blacks full-back Israel Dagg told reporters. “He had a lot of pressure on him.”

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