AUCKLAND, 23 Oct. - Captain Richie McCaw paid tribute to his All Blacks after they survived the most nerve-racking of scares to end 24 years of pain and clinch their second Rugby World Cup title with an 8-7 win over France.
"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," said McCaw after Sunday's match at Eden Park.
"We couldn't have been under more pressure at times but we stuck to our guns and got there in the end."
In the end it was a second-half penalty by fourth-choice fly half Stephen Donald that proved decisive. McCaw, playing his 103rd Test, saluted the replacements who had been drafted into his injury-hit squad.
"When we had problems the next guy stood up and the next guy stood up, and I take my hat off to the guy (Donald, who replaced Aaron Cruden in the Final) but it's not about one guy, everybody played as well as they can."
In 1999 and 2007 Les Bleus had wrecked New Zealand’s dreams of glory with dramatic come-from-behind victories.
And they looked as if they might do so again as they battled to within a single point of McCaw's team with half an hour of Sunday’s match remaining.
But in this re-enactment of the inaugural RWC 1987 Final, the French once again came off second best as a Tony Woodcock try and Donald's penalty gave New Zealand the edge over a converted try by Thierry Dusautoir.
France were unrecognisable from the team that had struggled in the earlier rounds and the All Blacks had to dig deeper than they would ever have imagined to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup in front of a delirious home crowd.
France captain Dusautoir, who was voted man of the match, said: "We read a lot of stuff this week but I thought we showed we know how to play rugby.
"We are really disappointed. I am really proud of my boys and what they did in the World Cup."
With both teams playing their third RWC Final, it was clear it was going to be a passionate encounter from the moment the French advanced on the All Blacks' Haka.
The collisions were shuddering and both teams lost their fly halves before the interval, when only a single unconverted try by prop Woodcock separated the sides.
France got their first penalty attempt on goal two minutes into the second half, when McCaw was caught handling in the ruck. But scrum half Dimitri Yachvili’s attempt was just wide.
New Zealand won a penalty in front of the posts two minutes later. Donald took over the kicking duties and nailed his attempt to put his team 8-0 ahead.
But Les Bleus struck back almost immediately. A break by replacement fly half François Trinh-Duc opened up the All Blacks defence and France made several attempts on the line before captain Dusautoir raced in to touch down beside the posts.
Trinh-Duc converted to make it 8-7 and when Donald put the restart out on the full, the All Blacks’ anxiety was palpable.
Coach Graham Henry went to his bench and the out-of-form Piri Weepu was replaced by Andy Ellis, hooker Keven Mealamu gave way to Andrew Hore and Ali Williams took Sam Whitelock’s place in the second row.
Les Bleus sensed another famous upset and took every opportunity to apply pressure. With 15 minutes remaining, the All Blacks were behind on territory and possession when Trinh-Duc had a chance to put the French in front on the scoreboard. But his 48m penalty attempt was also wide of the mark.
With seven minutes left France pressed again but New Zealand managed to withstand the assault and when Craig Joubert blew the final whistle on the lowest-scoring Final, the All Blacks and their fans were understandably overjoyed.
Frenetic first half
The first half had been frenetic.
France fly half Morgan Parra had to leave the field after 11 minutes looking groggy and slightly bloodied following a double impact from Ma'a Nonu and McCaw, although he returned six minutes later.
In his absence the All Blacks opened the scoring when a well-worked lineout move deep in the France 22 allowed Woodcock to charge though a gap in the France defence and sprint 10m to touch down for his first ever RWC try.
Scrum half Weepu, who had been New Zealand's principal kicker following the injury to Dan Carter in the pool stages, missed his second shot of the night with the conversion attempt.
Parra was again in the wars and, to his very visible disappointment, was replaced for good by Trinh-Duc.
When the All Blacks won another penalty after 25 minutes, more points went begging when Weepu again skewed his kick wide.
But there was nothing wrong with their running game and only resolute French defence kept them from breaching the line.
France centre Aurélien Rougerie had to dive on the ball in-goal after a deft chip through by All Blacks wing Richard Kahui on the half-hour.
But the New Zealand injury woes continued when third-choice fly half Cruden suffered a nasty knee injury and was replaced by Donald, making his RWC debut.
On 36 minutes a long-range Trinh-Duc drop-goal attempt sailed just to the right of the uprights and shortly afterwards only a Weepu tap tackle could stop his run to the line when he split the All Blacks defence.
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