New Zealand 8 France 7 – Dusatoir – man of the match

NZ were the best team in the tournament but France were the best team
on the day. Allez les Blues!

EDDIE BUTLER at Eden Park, Auckland

RUGBY WORLD CUP FINAL: THE ALL Blacks had a gruelling night, which may
be no way to start a celebration of their World Cup final success,
gained in an unbelievably tense 8-7 victory over France here
yesterday.

But they were made to look distinctly uncomfortable by France, who
were so extraordinarily unrecognisable from their shambolic selves at
all other stages of the tournament that we should have known all along
and beyond any reasonable doubt that it was inevitable that they would
play like this. They remain contrary to the depths of their gorgeously
unfathomable rugby souls, and we should treasure every mutinous sneer
and sardonic shrug as indications merely of beauty ahead.

There remains something, however, of an elephant in the room. The
referee. Craig Joubert did not rise to the global occasion, only to
the Kiwi event. He was not a 16th man, for the Eden Park crowd claimed
that role, an expression of a nation’s will that was not going to be
denied. But Joubert was not a curious investigator here. He seemed to
take the view that this was not a crime scene but a house party and it
would be rude to be too probing. In short, he refereed France but not
the All Blacks. These seven weeks have not been the referees’ finest.

Others, too, failed to rise to the occasion. Piri Weepu on his biggest
night cracked. His kicking turned to sliced mush and nothing that was
muttered through his lips as he ordered himself to follow the code of
routine and rhythm had any connection with his swinging leg. Poor Piri
was replaced after 50 minutes.

So, who did their bit? Step forward Stephen Donald, until a couple of
weeks ago a whitebait fisherman on the banks of the Waikato, whiling
away his time as last man on the outhalf reserve list before departing
life as an All Black for English Premiership rugby with Bath.

Donald’s All Black world may have been easier to leave behind than
some others’. He had been panned for not really having the bottle. On
he came after only 34 minutes, to replace little Aaron Cruden,
fourth-choice taking over from third. Well, here’s to Stephen Donald,
master of his rugby destiny and holder of his nerve when it counted.
Over went the penalty four minutes into the second half, the
three-pointer that meant France would have to score twice. He made a
break in this final of all-consuming defence, and rolled the ball
sweetly into touch.

New Zealand are generally sniffy about such mundane mechanics as
shunting the ball into that area known as “anywhere but here”, but
they learned at this final to love a Donald gain of 10 metres, or a
penalty awarded with two minutes to go. They appreciated with undying
devotion the rumbling, time-eating mauls that in less stressed times
they call European passion-killers.

Goodness, this was a game stripped to its fundamentals. The Maori
Kaumatua (elders) who have blown their horns and drawn the players
forward from the tunnel to the field have been pretty much undressed;
now, in the grand final, their nation’s rugby was similarly reduced
layer by layer until the only thing left was bravery. France were the
better team, but the All Blacks never yielded. The score, 8-7, sounds
a miserable score, but this was gangster-movie gripping.

The biggest arms at work on the vice – not as in gangsters, but the
worktop gripper – belonged to Thierry Dusautoir. A man-of-the-match
award to a player on the losing side always suggests an exceptional
performance, but Dusautoir has been out of this rugby world all
through the French madness of the past seven weeks. One hundred metres
gained on a night of progression by the centimetre, and 21 tackles
made . . . it was one of the greatest performances we have seen in
World Cup history.

And so it was that the All Blacks edged their way over the winning
line. Their only try came from a lineout: the unflinching Jerome Kaino
to the uncomplicated loosehead, Tony Woodcock. Every last drop of
their poetic outpouring was binned by the French, whose challenge was
blunt: you will have to do it the hard way.

And so they did. Without Dan Carter, the All Black trail was always
going to be pot-holed, but nobody thought that Ma’a Nonu would be
upended, that Israel Dagg would be hounded into kick-and-chase. That
Piri would implode.

Richie McCaw was still there, refusing to limp on his gammy foot,
refusing to be anywhere but perilously close to the tinder box.

It was ugly and it was beautiful, as contradictory as France
throughout the World Cup. The All Blacks were the best and they won it
at their worst. They deserved everything that came their way, the hard
way.