As Andy Ellis booted the ball into the stands shortly after the clock struck 80 minutes, he kicked 24 years of agony with it. Finally, the All Blacks are Rugby World Cup Champions again.
In one of the grittiest defensive battles of the tournament, the New Zealand All Blacks beat France 8-7 at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand.
“We had to dig deeper than ever before and it’s hard to get it to sink in, but I am so proud of every single one of them,” All Black captain Richie McCaw said after the match.
In a rematch of the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, France came out dominating possession. The action was hard-hitting and fast-paced, keeping the 61,000 in attendance, and the millions of New Zealanders watching at home on the edge of their seats.
The All Blacks struck first, getting their only try from an unlikely source as prop Tony Woodcock rumbled through a huge hole in the defense, sliding over the try line for his first try of the World Cup at the 15-minute mark. Piri Weepu attempted the conversion, but missed, keeping the All Blacks lead to a slim 5-0.
Weepu was given a starting role after injuries to superstar fly-half Dan Carter and his replacement Colin Slade, who both went down with groin injuries. Carter was injured during a final training session before a pool play match against Canada, and Slade went down in the quarter-final win against Argentina. Many thought the All Blacks would suffer without Carter, but Weepu carried the torch on his broad shoulders. Sunday night was not his night however, as he missed a conversion and two penalty kicks, leaving eight points untaken.
The All Blacks appeared to catch a bad break when they lost Aaron Cruden in the 33rd minute. He hyperextended his right knee and was forced to watch the remainder of the match from the bench. Losing a starter is never a good thing, but little did they know that replacement Stephen Donald would provide the difference.
Donald took over kicking duties for the shaky Weepu and nailed a 36-meter penalty kick just four minutes into the second half, putting the All Blacks up 8-0.
The 8-point buffer would not last long…
The 8-point buffer would not last long, as France struck back with their first try of the match five minutes later when captain Thierry Dusautoir reached over the try line. Francois Trinh-Duc slotted the conversion right down the middle and the All Blacks’ lead was slimmed down to 8-7.
France came within one meter of scoring another try in the 64th minute, but the defense of the All Blacks held, much to the delight of the crowd. “We couldn’t have been under more pressure at times but we stuck to our guns and got there in the end,” McCaw said after the match.
With a one-point lead and time their only ally, the All Blacks went into defense mode, kicking the ball to relieve some of the pressure at their end. Despite possessing the ball for most of the second half, France was unable to score a second try and the All Blacks walked away victorious.
New Zealand coach Graham Henry, who was almost relieved of his post after a quarterfinal exit four years ago, said after the match, “I’m just delighted for the boys. We’ve been the top team in the world for a long time, so it’s been a long time coming.”
Captain Richie McCaw was finally able to put his hands on the Webb Ellis Cup, something he refused to do before winning it. “I don’t think you should touch it till you’ve earned it,” he said on the All Blacks website before the match. After his gutsy performance in this year’s final, he most certainly earned it.Follow Kristen on Twitter @Call2theBullpen