Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: The All Blacks' longest night heralded a brighter dawn

Even our most seasoned players were nervous, apprehensive and forgetting decision-making skills in the tense final.

Even by halftime, Kieran Read realised he hadn't shed the cloak of apprehension that had wrapped around him all day.

For all the pre-match assurances that the World Cup final was a game like any other, it was apparent to Read and his fellow All Blacks on October 23, 2011, it was anything but.

Auckland, normally so placid and apathetic, had frothed into a city for the obsessed and expectant. The semifinal win had rattled something loose: a nation came of age that night, believing for the first time in 24 years that the World Cup could be theirs.

By mid-morning the city centre was abuzz; the All Blacks aware from their elevated hotel rooms that the black ants below were there for them. The tension rose, nerves jangled. The usual routines didn't seem to work - no matter what the players did, they couldn't find any mental comfort.

"During the day was a big build up and I was nervous the whole day really," recalls Ma'a Nonu. "I probably am a wee bit nervous normally but this was a bit different - I had never been in this position before. I had never played in a final like this and the week went slowly."

The first half went equally slowly and did little to settle either the All Black players, coaches or fans. They led 5-0 thanks to a well-rehearsed move that saw Tony Woodcock charge through the middle of a lineout.

But in the key areas of the set-piece and collisions, the All Blacks were coming second. They had also suffered the almost too cruel blow of seeing their third first-five - Aaron Cruden - limp off after 30 minutes to be replaced by the unlikely Stephen Donald fresh, or not so fresh, from an extended whitebaiting trip.

The French, masters of subterfuge and always capable of massive swings in form and temperament, suddenly looked a vastly different side to the one that was blown away at Eden Park during the pool stages.

Not only did they look eerily capable, the game was evolving along many parallel lines to the 2007 quarter-final. Thoughts of a shocking repeat were difficult to keep at bay.

"At halftime I was the most nervous I had ever been," says Read. "I certainly felt it could have swung either way. I didn't know what the referee was going to do but I had faith in what we were doing. As a forward, we wanted to take control and just see out the game really."

When French captain Thierry Dusautoir scored a try at much the same point in the game as he had four years previously, hopes that the All Blacks could indeed see out the game hit the metaphoric iceberg.

As much as the team had trained to deal with the pressure, to cope mentally and stay united, they were starting to crumble.

Hours of work with mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka had been about this precise moment: about enabling the players to make good decisions under pressure.

"The brain essentially has three parts - instinct, thinking and emotion," says Gilbert. "Invariably under pressure it is the thinking that shuts down and that means you are relying on emotion and instinct and can no longer pick up the cues and information to make good decisions.

"We spoke a lot about connecting - about staying connected. That was important because if you become disconnected then you can focus on outcome and not task and the ability to make good decisions is compromised."

In that final half hour, with the All Blacks clinging to their 8-7 lead and the game being played predominantly inside New Zealand's half, the dreaded disconnect started to manifest.

Retaining possession was a chore, starter moves were ill-conceived and clumsy and even the thunderously destructive Jerome Kaino was failing to make any impact.

"For those 30 minutes after half-time I was nervous," says Cory Jane. "I started to think that after having done so much that we were starting to play absolutely terribly.

"A few boys started abusing each other. If someone dropped it, instead of doing what we had been doing in the past, words would be exchanged. Some guys started not telling the other guys the moves."

A missed penalty by French first-five Francois Trinh-Duc with 15 minutes left offered a reprieve, but what really steadied the All Black ship, kept them from imploding, was the leadership of Richie McCaw.

As chaos threatened, he somehow stayed calm. As others wilted, he stiffened and seeing him so resolute, so certain, was an inspiration to his teammates.

"He was great," says Read. "He had spent a lot of time preparing for that moment, for that pressure. It was awesome and immense and to even be on the field and playing so well with that injury was incredible."

It was McCaw's relentless ability to throw his body into awkward places that ultimately frustrated the French to the point where they coughed up the ball with three minutes to go.

The stadium of four million sensed that Jean-Marc Doussain's knock-on was the moment to celebrate - the time to let it all out, but the players, even with the French almost out for the count, didn't believe victory was theirs until Andy Ellis booted an 81st-minute penalty into the Eden Park throng.

"We had seen from other games where teams had tried to hold on to the ball for the last few minutes that they could be penalised for leaving their feet or killing the ball so until that final whistle went... it was all on," says Mealamu. "It was only at the final whistle that I thought, knew we had won."

One year on and the significance of the victory is impossible to overstate - not so much in terms of what it ended, but what it started.

The talk of fine lines in sport is often overdone, but imagine the alternative future the All Blacks faced had they not held on. Just a single point separated the teams yet the difference was as vast as an ocean.

Everything the All Blacks have achieved since - sloppy performance against Australia on Saturday night notwithstanding - has been the direct result of events one year ago today. The motivation and confidence they have found, the composure, speed, belief, tempo and accuracy with which they now play have only been possible because under the most intolerable pressure, they found the victory that had eluded them in so many previous World Cups. This is a side that did not want another four-year cycle taunting them. They wanted to live in the now - something that would only be possible if they had possession of the World Cup.

They could only, truly, become the world's dominant side if the Webb Ellis Cup ratified their excellence.

"I think when you go back to that final whistle - there was a huge amount of relief," says All Black coach Steve Hansen.

"That would suggest that yeah, the monkey is off the back and you are not burdened by thinking about 'we have to win it in four years' time'.

"You enjoy the moment and now we are a new team and we are striving to do new things. So I think sub-consciously it has alleviated some of that 24-year history."

While it initially seemed the impact 12 months ago was to wipe out unwanted chapters of history, it is now apparent the real value was in paving the way for more compelling ones to be written.

- NZ Herald

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 28 Nov 2014 13:55:37 Processing Time: 508ms