France 7 New Zealand 8
New Zealand ended 24 years of hurt by being crowned world champions at an emotion-charged Eden Park – but only after perceived no-hopers France gave them a colossal fright.
Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy as New Zealand ended a tournament they started as red-hot favourites 45 days ago with rugby union’s golden prize ultimately in their grasp.
France, though, delivered a performance of which few people thought they were capable, having lost to New Zealand and Tonga in the pool phase and then edged past 14-man semi-final opponents Wales.
But they shook, rattled and almost rolled over an All Blacks side that just about overcame debilitating big-night nerves.
France knocked New Zealand out of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups, and when their captain Thierry Dusautoir’s 47th-minute try cancelled out All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock’s first-half touchdown, a horrible case of deja vu beckoned for them.
Les Bleus had set the tone by marching over the halfway line as New Zealand performed their traditional pre-match haka.
It never threatened to boil over into a full-blown confrontation, but it proved a major statement of intent from France, who proceeded to play like men possessed.
In the end, new Bath signing Stephen Donald’s second-half penalty made the difference. Two weeks ago he had been whitebait fishing on the Waikato River when he was summoned as squad replacement for an injured Colin Slade.
Donald took over from Aaron Cruden – stricken Dan Carter’s World Cup deputy - as New Zealand’s fly-half fitness jinx stalked them to the very end of a competition.
But France proved the moral victors of a game short on points – it was the lowest-scoring final and smallest winning margin in World Cup final history - yet high on intensity, passion and power.
France coach Marc Lievremont will step down after the tournament to be replaced by Philippe Saint-Andre, yet he could have asked no more from players who had been in bitter disagreement with him for much of his eventful reign.
New Zealand supremo Graham Henry is also set to depart the Test scene – Henry’s current assistant Steve Hansen is his likely successor – but he could never have expected France to provide such inspired opposition.
Not until reserve scrum-half Andy Ellis kicked the ball high into the Eden Park stands during added time could New Zealand relax as they became the first host nation world champions since South Africa 16 years ago.
France dominated the opening 10 minutes, looking to move the ball, wide, and a nervous All Blacks start was underlined when scrum-half Piri Weepu sent his opening penalty kick well wide.
France suffered a major injury scare 12 minutes into the contest as fly-half Morgan Parra came off a distinct second-best after attempting to tackle juggernaut All Blacks centre Ma’a Nonu, although there appeared simultaneous contact from McCaw’s knee.
Parra received extensive treatment on the pitch and was then helped off to make way for Francois Trinh-Duc, before Weepu found touch deep inside Les Bleus’ 22.
And the All Blacks pounced, courtesy of flanker Jerome Kaino’s clean lineout take that found Woodcock, who then surged through a gaping defensive hole to score.
Weepu failed with his conversion attempt, but New Zealand had made a telling statement from their first notable attack as Parra returned to the action.
New Zealand were growing in confidence following a nerve-riddled opening, and when Trinh-Duc appeared as a permanent replacement for Parra, he found himself thrust into a defensive role, such was the All Blacks’ mounting pressure.
But New Zealand’s cause was not helped by Weepu’s wayward direction off the tee, and a third successive miss suggested he would need to hand over kicking duties.
France, having managed to repel a series of threatening All Blacks attacks, worked their way back upfield, yet technical indiscipline let them down at crucial periods.
Cruden then followed Parra out of the action, limping away to be replaced by Donald, and New Zealand needed to regroup during the interval, having played second fiddle during much of a half that saw Les Bleus produce their best 40 minutes in the tournament.
Donald increased New Zealand’s lead through an early second-half penalty, but France came storming back and opened their account just two minutes later when Dusautoir rounded off a sustained spell of pressure.
Trinh-Duc’s conversion made it 8-7, and the All Blacks found themselves under pressure they had rarely experienced on home soil as France remained a driven team heading into the final quarter.
The closing minutes were played out against a backdrop of shredded nerves on and off the pitch, but New Zealand finally reached their promised land – world champions for the first time since 1987, when France, as today, finished runners-up.