All Blacks: Yes, we did it - but there's more to come

By Dylan Cleaver

All Blacks are now just 80 minutes from the glory we've waited for since 1987

Cory Jane shows the scars of conflict as his teammates celebrate Nonu's try. Photo / Greg Bowker
Cory Jane shows the scars of conflict as his teammates celebrate Nonu's try. Photo / Greg Bowker

Yes we can and yes we did - in style.

Twenty-four years after New Zealand and France played the first Rugby World Cup final on Eden Park, the two teams will meet there again after contrasting paths to the Big Show.

Last night, the All Blacks were scintillating as they dispatched the Wallabies 20-6 at Eden Park. Led by Cory Jane and Israel Dagg, the New Zealanders, to a man, ran the Australians off the field with a superb display of tactical, running rugby.

"It was awesome," said All Black captain Richie McCaw.

"We realised we had to front up and be on the job for 80 minutes. Every single man did their bit tonight."

James Horwill, the Australian captain, said: "We didn't do well enough to get the pressure off ...

"Look, it's really disappointing ... Credit to the All Blacks - they outplayed us and they deserved to win."

New Zealand are now just 80 minutes from glory, having made their first final since 1995, when they lost in extra time to South Africa on an unforgettable day in Johannesburg.

Since then they have lost at the semifinal stage twice and, shockingly, in the quarter-final four years ago.

Graham Henry and his men crossed that hurdle last week when they defeated Argentina in a sloppy encounter, but Australia in the semifinal was always going to be the true test of this side's mettle.

For the Wallabies last night, there were problems from the kick-off, Quade Cooper putting the ball out on the full and allowing the All Blacks an immediate attacking scrum.

Cooper had one of his usual mixed game, punctuated by some wayward ball handling and missed tackles.

But for some early goalkicking nerves by Piri Weepu, the All Blacks could have won by a bigger margin. They led just 14-6 at halftime, but always seemed in control of their destiny.

Latecomer Aaron Cruden emphasised his growing confidence with a superb drop kick in the 22nd minute.

This Sunday's final might be one for the romantics, but there was little sentimentality in the way France booked their place.

After reports of internal ructions and a coach who had "lost" the dressing room, France scraped into the quarter-finals despite losing to the All Blacks and Tonga in pool play.

Their enmity for the team across the English Channel was enough to rouse them for one big display, but they were poor in Saturday night's semifinal, three penalties being all they could muster against a team reduced to 14 men for more than an hour.

Credit France for turning around a poor tournament, but the All Blacks, too, deserve praise after their campaign appeared to be in crisis.

On October 2 the country learned there was a pesky body part called the adductor tendon and that star playmaker Dan Carter's had snapped.

That would be difficult enough to deal with on its own, but the problems have mounted - and we're not talking about late nights out in Takapuna.

McCaw has struggled to shake off the foot injury that has plagued his 2011 season and fellow centurion Mils Muliaina's tournament and All Black career ended with a shoulder injury in the quarter-final.

So, too, did Colin Slade's, meaning Cruden, not in the original squad of 30, was entrusted with helping guide the All Blacks around the park.

Cometh the hour and all that.

Some curious selections over the past 12 months might have exacerbated the problems caused by injuries, in particular that of Carter, but Henry and his assistants deserve credit for the way they have adapted to change and overcome adversity over the past six weeks.

Last night was as stern a test of Henry's credentials as there has been since he was controversially reappointed in the wake of the 2007 calamity.

So we wake to a sense of relief in the Land of the Long Wait - New Zealand finally has the opportunity to add to its one world title, secured on this ground 8884 days ago.

They will go in as heavy favourites. France were dispatched 37-17 in pool play, but that score flattered the Tricolores.

They will also go in knowing a win should secure Steve Hansen's passage to the one job he's always wanted - head coach.

He desperately wants a crack at the big job.

If his forwards dominate their French counterparts on Sunday, he would have gone a long way to ensuring New Zealand lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

There are others who will have their eye on the big prize, but they would be applying with a long-term view rather than any real hope for the now. But those are debates for the future.

For now we should sit back and enjoy the week, safe in the knowledge that the home side will be in the final.

It's the perfect end to a near-perfect tournament.

And, as we have learned so many times in the past, chances like these do not come around that often.

REASONS TO BE CONFIDENT

* The All Blacks have met France before in a World Cup final on Eden Park, and the year was 1987.

* France turned on the kind of rugby that has carried them to the final at the start of their pool game against the All Blacks. Ten minutes later Ma'a Nonu and co shut them down.

* The All Blacks will not wear an alternate strip after France waived their right to be the home team in the final. Most Kiwis still remember the dull grey jerseys the All Blacks imploded in four years ago.

* If the French win it will mean they won three games in a row - far too much consistency for Les Bleus.

* With the eyes of the world and the all-seeing Spidercam hovering overhead, it's unlikely dark arts such as the odd scrotum pull will be risked by the French.

- NZ Herald

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