Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

All Blacks give time for elation after epic Rugby World Cup struggle

The All Blacks celebrate their close win. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The All Blacks celebrate their close win. Photo / Brett Phibbs

All Black captain Richie McCaw was one of the last players to leave Eden Park after last night's Rugby World Cup final, and his smile was one of disbelief as he took in the cheering crowd stretched high above him.

The All Blacks captain clutched the Webb Ellis Cup in one hand - the same cup he shed tears over four years ago - and shook his head at it all.

He and his team had shown little emotion all day - even the hundreds of feverish fans who cheered them as they left their central Auckland hotel earlier in the day hardly seemed to puncture their focus.

But that controlled determination gave way to jubilation as the team embraced after last night's final whistle.

One of the loudest cheers of the night was for injured first-five Dan Carter as he joined his teammates onstage to collect his winner's medal.

Coach Graham Henry followed on stage, with a beaming smile.

Stephen Donald - the selectors' fourth choice for first-five - was there on stage with him as McCaw and the team received what Henry calls "that little yellow cup".

Giant locks Brad Thorn and Ali Williams were the most animated of the team, raising their arms to the crowd as their teammates embraced around them.

As the squad neared the end of the lap the crowd cheered when winger Cory Jane fell over in the midst of a glitter-covered section of the field after being chased by his mate Israel Dagg.

The duo, who angered team management by going on a drinking binge before the quarter-final, will have celebrated their redemption last night.

Earlier, the mood of about 60,000 fans at Eden Park changed drastically when first-five Aaron Cruden was injured about 30 minutes into the game.

The All Blacks' status as favourites had comforted the crowd early in the first half - there wasn't the same tension as during last week's semifinal.

But the realisation that the World Cup was now in Stephen Donald's hands sent a ripple of apprehension around the ground.

Earlier in the day hundreds had gathered outside the Heritage Hotel in central Auckland to await the team's departure to Eden Park.

It was standing room only on the edges of a neighbouring carpark building, one group of men amusing the crowd below with calls such as: "Stephen Donald, stay at home. Everyone else, on the bus".

But if the All Blacks felt the same rising panic it was hard to tell - the team had given off little hint of emotion all night.

While players had joked and laughed together during warm-ups for pool games, little was said as the team prepared for kick-off.

Henry was the only one who seemed to notice the 60,000 around him, raising an occasional hand when the crowd called out to him.

While the backs practised their kicking, the forwards stood with arms linked, heads bowed to what was being said.

The only acknowledgement of Cruden's exit from the game from the All Blacks' bench came from Sonny Bill Williams, who reached a hand out to the injured first-five.

The French stood in a huddle as the All Blacks ran out after half-time, with the score just 5-0 to New Zealand.

The All Blacks took their positions, centre Conrad Smith turning to clap on his team before the whistle sounded.

Both sets of fans tried to drown each other out when the All Blacks' lead was cut to a point by France captain Thierry Dusautoir's try.

As the atmosphere boiled over, Israel Dagg repeated again and again the call of a play to Richard Kahui.

The French bench was standing to pump fists with each play.

The All Blacks' reserves stayed seated, Cruden huddled beneath a blanket and Keven Mealamu clapping to himself with nerves.

With three minutes to go, the All Blacks' bench were off their seats and ready to run on the field.

Mealamu held hands with the players around him in prayer as the team mauled the ball forward.

Twenty seconds, 10, then they were with their teammates on the field as the crowd erupted.

After the match, Sir Brian Lochore, who coached the 1987 All Blacks to their World Cup victory over France, helped present the winner's medals.

Sir Brian's words to his own players before the 1987 final could well have been said last night. "You are a good team. But you are not yet a great team. If you win today, you will be able to say you are a great team, and in 20 years' time, you will still be able to live on it. Great teams never die!"

- NZ Herald

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