All Blacks: The harder the battle, the sweeter the Rugby World Cup victory

By Dylan Cleaver, Jared Savage

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Fans watch the Rugby World Cup 2011 final. Photo / Natalie Slade
Fans watch the Rugby World Cup 2011 final. Photo / Natalie Slade

So this is what it feels like to wake up as Rugby World Cup champions in our national sport.

Feels bloody marvellous, doesn't it?

For seven weeks, the country has played the role of gracious, mainly good-humoured hosts at the biggest, longest-running party it has seen.

It's been brilliant, everyone's been brilliant, but now it's time to kick back and take some time to celebrate.

Our All Blacks are world champions. Let's drink (sensibly) to that.

The ghosts of five failed campaigns were laid to rest at Eden Park last night, the same ground where the All Blacks won their only other world title, 24 long, long years ago.

To the names of Kirk, Fitzpatrick, Kirwan, Fox, Shelford and friends, we can add McCaw, Mealamu, Thorn, Weepu, Kaino and colleagues.

From those who have started every game, like Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks and Jerome Kaino, to Hosea Gear, who has not played a minute, every one of the 33-man squad has etched his name into New Zealand sporting folklore.

At 11.10 last night, Richie McCaw lifted the elusive Webb Ellis Cup after a final in which the All Blacks ground out a nerve-racking 8-7 win.

Thousands of fans in the fan zones around Auckland counted the seconds down until the All Blacks were victorious and declared world champions.

A huge roar sounded in Aotea Square and thousands of people stood up, high-fived and hugged strangers.

There were cheers for McCaw and his men, particularly as television cameras cut to the Webb Ellis Cup.

People ran down Queen St screaming: "All Blacks, All Blacks, All Blacks". Others waved New Zealand flags wildly and rushed towards the waterfront.

Those wearing French colours looked heartbroken.

The jubilation was welcome relief after 80 minutes of tension.

Prop Woodcock crashed over in the 14th minute, scoring directly from a well-worked lineout move to settle the nerves of All Blacks fans.

But the team failed to capitalise further in the first half, leading only 5-0 at the break after Piri Weepu squandered eight points, missing the conversion and two penalty kicks.

The collisions were fierce and France first-five Morgan Parra was forced from the field, groggy and bloodied, and replaced by Francois Trinh-Duc.

He was followed off soon after, in the 33rd minute, by Aaron Cruden - the third-choice first five - who landed awkwardly on his knee.

From the bench came Stephen Donald, who stepped up to kick a penalty goal shortly after half time.

The 8-0 lead was slashed minutes later when French captain Thierry Dusautoir ran through a gaping hole to score beside the posts. The try was converted and the All Black lead was as thin as it could be.

The rest of the match was an arm-wrestle, with neither side able to land a decisive blow.

The All Blacks spent most of the second half tackling, then in ruck after a ruck in the final few minutes.

A penalty kick pushed them into French territory, and a maul from the resulting lineout wound down the final seconds down on the clock.

A final penalty ended the game, the whistle blew and a nation rejoiced.

Richie McCaw put it best: "I'm absolutely shagged. The courage and what the guys did out there, we had to dig as deep as we ever had before.

"It's hard to really let it sink in. I'm just so proud of every single one of the guys.

"We couldn't have been under more pressure at times. We stuck to our guns and we got there in the end."

A four-minute fireworks display marked the victory, exploding from a barge just off Queens Wharf and the top of the HSBC building on Queen St.

At Eden Park, Hayley Westenra ended the festivities with a moving rendition of Now Is the Hour.

Coach Graham Henry said the hard-fought win and the nation's support during the tournament made him "proud to be a New Zealander".

"It's been quite outstanding. Richie and the boys just hanging in there, right through the 80 minutes, just superb.

"I've got so much respect for what the boys have done over eight years, it's been outstanding."

Over the past 20 years there have been tears and tantrums, rage and recriminations as one All Black team after another left every four years with a bag of hope, the tag of favourite and some of the best players assembled on the planet.

Each time they've returned with nothing but hard-luck stories.

We've blamed food poisoning, we've blamed the ref, we've cursed bad selections and bad bounces.

The fall-out from Cardiff in 2007 was radioactive. With a compelling candidate in Robbie Deans, the NZ Rugby Union had to choose between the incumbents, who had just led the All Blacks to their worst result at a World Cup, or a Super rugby title-winning machine.

Against the weight of talkback opinion, they chose to retain Graham Henry and assistants Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen.

Now they're laughing all the way to the trophy cabinet.

The win is sweet redemption for Henry and Smith, but long term it is even more important for Hansen.

He might have remained impassively tight-lipped before the final but make no mistake, he wants the big job; he sees it as his destiny.

With a winner's medal in his kitbag and an absence of compelling candidates, the job is as good as his.

Regardless of whether you're a fan of his sometimes severe personality, you cannot argue about the way the forwards, his area of responsibility, have performed over the past two months.

Last night, the team sealed the deal and sealed Hansen's future too.

For those who remain immune to the charms of the gruff Cantabrian, here's a brief message - Four More Years.

- NZ Herald

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