NEW ZEALAND captain Richie McCaw praised his team’s courage and desire after they ended 24 years of hurt by winning the closest final in World Cup history.
The All Blacks had played under intense pressure for six weeks – they lost injured fly-halves Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade along the way – but somehow prevailed 8-7 against fired-up France yesterday.
Les Bleus set the tone before kick-off, marching on New Zealand’s traditional pre-match haka.
By transgressing across the halfway line, France are likely to be hit with a £10,000 fine from World Cup organisers.
But money could not buy the gesture and intensity of France’s subsequent challenge, as they pushed New Zealand to the limit with a performance that belied their miserable pre-final form.
Relief was etched deep into the faces of McCaw, All Blacks supremo Graham Henry and his coaching colleagues Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, before victory was secured by two unlikely heroes prop Tony Woodcock and substitute Stephen Donald.
Woodcock scored the All Blacks’ try, while new Bath signing Donald’s second-half penalty tilted the contest. Two weeks earlier he had been whitebait fishing on the Waikato River when he was summoned as squad replacement for an injured Colin Slade.
The All Blacks squad will now begin three days of public celebration, starting with an open-top bus tour through central Auckland, but it could – and perhaps should – have been a different story.
“It wasn’t very pretty, but it came down to how much desire, how much courage the boys had,” McCaw said.
“A lot of guys have put a lot of effort in for a long time, and they weren’t going to let the opportunity go. We probably didn’t play our best, but we played good enough.”
Thierry Dusautoir’s converted try brought France to within a point of the tournament hosts, and McCaw said: “The big thing was not panicking.
“We had talked about being in situations like that for a few years, and what we would do in those situations.
“You have got to keep the belief and trust. We had to dig pretty deep, but the last thing we wanted to do was panic. We managed to hang in there.
“We know we were going to be in for a hell of a game. We realised that all week. You couldn’t get much tougher than it was today.
“The guys stuck to their guns, and we got there.”
As for France’s approach to the haka, McCaw added: “We talked about them bringing something different, and they did, but the game doesn’t start until the whistle blows, does it. If anything, it showed us what we were in for, and that was exactly what we got. They were right up for the game, as we expected, and they certainly made it tough.”
An emotional Henry will now step down as All Blacks chief – Hansen is favourite to take over – and he paid a glowing tribute to his players and support staff who made the country’s first World Cup triumph since 1987 possible.
“Personally, you’ve got some peace, and that’s a great feeling,” Henry said.
“This thing was about winning, and the guys have won the World Cup. That is outstanding.”