New Zealand beat France 8-7 in the closest-ever Rugby World Cup final, ending a run of five failures at the championship of its national sport.
Tony Woodcock’s 15th-minute try and a second-half penalty from fourth-choice fly-half Stephen Donald at Auckland’s Eden Park last night gave the All Blacks their second world title. France had gotten within a point through Thierry Dusautoir’s converted 47th-minute try after Donald’s penalty.
By joining Australia and South Africa as two-time Webb Ellis Cup champions, top-ranked New Zealand ends nearly a quarter century of letdowns -- including upset losses to France in 1999 and 2007 -- since winning the inaugural edition over Les Bleus in 1987.
“It’s been a long time coming,” All Blacks coach Graham Henry said. “To win means everything. We have been the No. 1 team for a long time and it is nice to be able to hang in there and get the job done under pressure.”
The 1987 victory was followed by defeats in a final, three semifinals and a quarterfinal as the All Blacks failed to convert a 75 percent winning record -- the best in international rugby -- into success at the sport’s top event.
It was the lowest-scoring title match in the history of the four-yearly tournament, eclipsing Australia’s 12-6 win over England in 1991, and the smallest margin of victory. South Africa in 1995 and England in 2003 won their finals by three points.
Fireworks, Ticker Tape
The final whistle triggered scenes of jubilation at Eden Park, where New Zealand extended its winning run to 27 matches. When All Blacks captain Richie McCaw hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup into the air on the presentation stage, the moment was met by a cacophony of fireworks, pyrotechnics, ticker tape and cheers.
“We had to dig deeper than ever before and it’s hard to get it to sink in,” said McCaw, who played through the tournament with a foot injury that restricted his training. “We couldn’t have been under more pressure at times but we stuck to our guns and got there in the end. It’s a great day to be a Kiwi.”
France, the only team in seven editions to play for the championship after losing two group games, becomes the first nation to lose three finals following defeats in 1987 and 1999.
“We were lucky in the previous rounds,” Dusautoir, who was voted as the man of the match, said at a news conference. “Tonight we were not lucky. That’s sport.”
Prop Woodcock scored the only points of a first half during which both teams lost their fly-halves to injury and All Blacks scrum-half Piri Weepu missed two penalties and a conversion that would have put his team up 13-0 at the break.
France No. 10 Morgan Parra had to go off after taking a knee in the face when trying to tackle center Ma’a Nonu.
New Zealand’s Aaron Cruden, who was thrust into the main playmaker’s role following injuries to first-choice Dan Carter and his backup Colin Slade, went off with a leg injury in the after being tackled by Francois Trinh-Duc, who had come on as a 23rd-minute replacement for Parra.
Cruden’s injury handed Donald, who had been whitebait fishing when he got called up to the squad as a replacement for Slade on Oct. 10, his World Cup debut in the final.
“It’s been an interesting seven weeks,” Donald said. “To be out there at Eden Park in the middle of a World Cup final is pretty extraordinary. At the time I didn’t think my kick would be that important but as it turned out it was a pretty significant one.”
Woodcock got the first points when he burst over from an attacking lineout from five meters out after blindside flanker Jerome Kaino jumped and guided the ball down to him.
Weepu, who missed with a fifth-minute penalty that he pulled to the left of the post, also put the conversion wide. The scrum-half again failed to find the target for the third time in the 26th minute after a French infringement at the breakdown.
Trinh-Duc came closest to scoring for France in the first half. He put a long-range drop goal attempt wide and was stopped on a run to line by Weepu’s tap tackle.
Dimitri Yachvili missed a penalty for France at the start of the second half before Donald put the All Blacks up 8-0 in the 46th minute. France then cut the gap to a point when open-side flanker Dusautoir crashed over near the posts, allowing Trinh-Duc an easy conversion.
Weepu kicked the re-start out on the full and was substituted by Andy Ellis straight away.
With 15 minutes to go, Trinh-Duc missed with a penalty attempt from 49 meters and New Zealand then managed to repel the French through 18 phases that ended with the home team winning a turnover. The All Blacks made a total of 111 tackles to 87 by their opponents.
After getting their hands on the ball, the All Blacks forwards ran down the clock. Referee Craig Joubert’s penalty for the home team with 90 seconds remaining was greeted with a roar from the crowd of 61,079 at Eden Park.
Second-rower Brad Thorn, playing in his final match for New Zealand before going to play in Japan, took the ball cleanly from the ensuing lineout. The French were penalized for offside, allowing Ellis to belt the ball out to end the game.
The All Blacks finished the 20-team tournament with a perfect record, vindicating the decision from New Zealand Rugby Union officials to reappoint Henry and his assistants after the team fell to its earliest World Cup exit four years ago by losing to France in the quarterfinals.
Last night’s victory was New Zealand’s 88th in 103 elite Tests since Henry, a former Auckland school headmaster, took charge eight years ago.
“It’s great for him,” All Blacks No. 8 Kieran Read told reporters. “The character of the man is huge and he’s had a massive influence over the direction we’ve taken since 2007. It couldn’t happen to a better man.”