Going into the Rugby World Cup, many people expected New Zealand to end its 24-year drought, but almost no one expected Stephen Donald to be the hero.
But the fourth-option at fly half kicked what would stand as the winning points in the All Blacks' 8-7 win, overcoming an unexpectedly strong effort from France.
The final in Auckland on Sunday will be remembered for France's ability to hold the All Blacks at bay and nearly topple Fortress New Zealand, a place where the hosts have lost only 37 times in 107 years. But in the end, New Zealand's defence found just enough to seal the win and hold the Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1987.
This was expected to be a much more comfortable coronation. The black in the stands at Eden Park was so prominent, one could spot the dozen or so per section that either supported Les Bleus or just didn’t get the memo. New Zealand played this tournament so well and France so uninspiringly, that a blowout was expected.
France attacked the game right from the start but New Zealand had its first opportunity six minutes in. Unfortunately, Piri Weepu, who had a shaky semifinal last Sunday against Australia, missed his kick badly.
Weepu, on a nice kick into touch 15 minutes in, helped set up the first try. A good set piece on the lineout set up Tony Woodcock for the try to give New Zealand a 5-0 lead and give anyone who bet on the loose head prop to score the first try a handsome return.
Ten minutes later, Weepu’s trouble’s came back into focus with another missed penalty. Then Aaron Cruden left the game with a knee injury. Cruden had replaced Dan Carter as the team’s top fly half so their third option, Donald, was sent on just before halftime.
Donald, a popular member of the team but maligned by its followers, made a penalty kick five minutes into the second half to stretch the lead to 8-0.
“At the time, I didn’t think much of it. It was just a kick out in front and I just put it over,” he said. “I haven’t kicked a ball in about six weeks. At the time, I didn’t think it would be important, but it turned out that way.”
Weepu, meanwhile, was having a terrible game. A poor kick led to a turnover and a good run by Trinh-Duc and eventually the try between the posts by captain Thierry Dusautoir. Trinh-Duc would add the conversion for France’s only points. Then, after a bad kickoff, Weepu was replaced.
France did have a couple of opportunities including a missed penalty by Trinh-Duc but New Zealand held possession for the last three minutes of the match to touch off celebrations.
“We had to dig deeper than ever before and it’s hard to get it to sink in,” captain Richie McCaw said. “But I am so proud of every single one of them.” “We couldn’t have been under more pressure at times but we stuck to our guns and got there in the end.”
For France it was a bit of redemption after a lacklustre semifinal against Wales but, for the third time, it ends up losers in the World Cup final.
“We are really disappointed,” Dusautoir said. “I am really proud of my boys and what they did.”
But the trophy and the day belong to New Zealand, a bit of joy for a nation still affected by the Pike River mine distater of last November and the Christchurch earthquake of January. The work to keep it begins for rugby union’s most famous team to defend the title in four years time when the tournament moved to Britain.