Donald is New Zealand's unlikely hero
AUCKLAND, 23 Oct. – It is over. The 24-year drought since the All Blacks last won the Rugby World Cup has finally been broken with an 8-7 win over France at Eden Park.
It was not the free-flowing, interlinking game that had seen off Australia in the semi-final but it was enough to end what has seemed like an eternity for a team that regularly sets the benchmark for rugby excellence.
Their hero was reserve fly half Stephen Donald, an unlikely figure who was not chosen for New Zealand’s original squad but joined them after the All Blacks’ second-choice No.10 Colin Slade was forced to withdraw with a groin injury.
Donald was only on the field because starting fly half Aaron Cruden, himself called up to replace the injured Dan Carter, went off with a knee injury six minutes before the interval.
Yet he held his nerve in his first RWC match to score the winning points in the 46th minute with a crucial penalty that gave his side breathing space. Although New Zealand retained their 5-0 half-time lead, Piri Weepu had missed eight points with the boot and France were threatening to make a comeback.
New Zealand had gone ahead with a 15th-minute try from prop Tony Woodcock that had appeared to stall a strong start from the French.
Flanker Jerome Kaino took a lineout at the tail and dropped it into Woodcock’s grasp just as he was charging through the gap left by France’s forwards.
Graham Henry’s reaction to the score said it all. The New Zealand head coach simply patted forwards coach Steve Hansen on the shoulder in acknowledgement of a training-ground move planned to perfection
But France were never going to roll over and a minute after Donald had extended the lead to eight points, skipper Thierry Dusautoir brought them into touching distance with a try that François Trinh-Duc converted.
It was the first try by a team captain in a RWC Final since David Kirk's for New Zealand in 1987 and France continued to threaten by sending the ball wide, where centres Maxime Mermoz and Aurélien Rougerie regularly broke the gain line.
With Trinh-Duc on the field as a replacement for makeshift fly half Morgan Parra, France had more shape and he continued to turn New Zealand around with deft kicks behind their defence that allowed Les Bleus to stay on the attack.
It was at this point that New Zealand’s refusal to be beaten shone through. They threw themselves into tackles and at the breakdown, their attacking intentions put on hold as protecting their lead became the overriding priority.
Even Israel Dagg, a player who has lit up RWC 2011 with his counter-attacking and broken field running, was content to wallop the ball into the stands rather than run the risk of a turnover close to his own line when he took possession deep in his own half.
With five minutes left, New Zealand’s defence stood firm as they stopped France over 15 phases near the halfway line. That they did not give away a penalty was testament to the mutual trust and discipline that has been instilled in the players under Henry’s leadership.
When the All Blacks finally got their hands on the ball they were content to run down the clock and return to rugby’s summit nearly a quarter of a century on from the last time they occupied that lofty height