Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Sporting achievement of the Year 2011 Winners: The All Blacks

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RWC 2011 -  New Zealand win the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Dean Purcell
RWC 2011 - New Zealand win the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Dean Purcell

The final arbiter in sport is the scoreboard. The landscape is littered with theories before, during and after contests - but when the final whistle is blown, the siren sounds or the flag is waved, there is a winner.

So when referee Craig Joubert pursed his lips to whistle the end of this year's Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks had a precious one-point advantage.

Purists could wrinkle their noses about a contest which did not reach great standards, especially from the All Blacks after their powerful semifinal dispatch of the Wallabies.

It did not matter to most of those who attended the October 23 decider at Eden Park or those who watched on television's multi-channels throughout New Zealand.

And it certainly did not matter to those 20 All Blacks who took the field, unused reserves Ben Franks, Adam Thomson or the extended group of staff led by Graham Henry.

The 8-7 scoreline was just as good as a 30-7 result. For the second time, the Webb Ellis Cup would be engraved with New Zealand as the winner. In years to come the one indisputable fact will be that the All Blacks won the quadrennial rugby event.

It had been some battle. For 34 minutes that same scoreboard did not alter. For 34 minutes the coaching staff fretted through the conclusion of this seventh World Cup.

Five times since David Kirk and his troops annexed the debut event in 1987, the All Blacks had stumbled in their quest to repeat. Their nadir came in 2007 when they fell to an unfancied French side in the neutral venue of Cardiff.

Four years on the French were even less favoured to shake the All Blacks in the final. The Tricolores had performed patchily throughout the event, beaten 37-17 by the All Blacks in pool play and then upstaged by Tonga 19-14.

The French had slapped England in a strong quarter-final performance before they staggered past an undermanned Wales in their semifinal. All the questions about the final were not about how but how many points the All Blacks would put on their opponents.

Few except the French team's family, friends and supporters gave the visitors a show of going one better than they had in the 1987 final. They had shown scant evidence of any great quality at this tournament.

But the All Blacks and certainly their management who were students of rugby history knew all about how favouritism worked at World Cups. They had been at or near the frontline for honours in five other World Cups and been beaten back in each.

They knew they would qualify for the sudden-death section of the tournament although that passage had suffered a significant blip when Daniel Carter damaged his groin and had to be replaced in the squad by Aaron Cruden.

Similar fates befell fullback Mils Muliaina and five-eighths Colin Slade after the quarter-final win against Argentina. The All Blacks eventually pulled away in the last quarter after some solid work from the Pumas pack who were shorn of their skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and a hardworking backline.

Then came the big deal, the semifinal against the Wallabies. The visitors lost fullback Kurtley Beale to a hamstring injury while the All Blacks started Cruden at five-eighths and hoped captain Richie McCaw would last after not training all week because of his damaged foot.

Nerves were high, Quade Cooper kicked out on the full and Cruden biffed a pass across the touchline before Israel Dagg broke and offloaded superbly to Ma'a Nonu for the opening try.

The gains kept coming with Piri Weepu kicking some penalties, Cruden snapping a fine dropped goal while Jerome Kaino stopped Digby Ioane from scoring with a superman tackle.

The All Blacks ground on. Victory was never in danger, the 60,087 crowd knew it and you sensed the Wallabies understood they were going no further. Without Beale they lacked some clout while the All Blacks forwards put their rivals in a sleeperhold.

So the All Blacks and France trundled off to their showdown at Eden Park. Four of the side - Dagg, Owen Franks, Cruden and Sam Whitelock - were born after the All Blacks' 1987 triumph, while coach Henry talked about how success would bring "peace, internal peace".

It was a swansong for All Black test forward Brad Thorn, who was heading for Japan, while the injured Muliaina and not-required John Afoa were jetting off to overseas deals.

Once again McCaw had missed training but he was out in his full gear 40 minutes before kick-off, stretching, running and working up the intensity he wanted to deliver.

On the sideline, many famous men who had figured in previous World Cups gave their forecasts for global television audiences.

Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Lynagh and Francois Pienaar spoke to their ITV audiences, George Gregan, Phil Kearns, John Eales, Greg Martin and Rod Kafer yakked to the public across the Ditch while Gavin Hastings and Agustin Pichot hit their targets.

The French were clad in white and advanced in a swaying line as the All Blacks thundered out their haka. The weather co-operated as the World Cup decider began at the unfashionable hour of 9pm to accommodate European television audiences.

Perhaps it was nerves, maybe the All Blacks could not regain their mojo or the French led by remarkable flanker Thierry Dusautoir unnerved their hosts. They defended strongly and they niggled, illegally at times, but their tactics unsettled the hosts.

It was a match of modest quality but that often occurs at World Cups. Only the 1995 final and perhaps the 2003 conclusion were matches of memorable quality. That is all irrelevant now.

The All Blacks' job was to win the World Cup, to achieve what five previous campaigns had failed.

Eventually the boot of unwanted five-eighths Stephen Donald kicked the vital penalty in his only shot at goal. His jersey was several sizes too small, he had done little training, he carried a modest All Black pedigree and hadn't figured in selectors' plans.

But when Cruden was crocked, Donald answered. His sole penalty shot from 36m proved the difference after Piri Weepu's wayward efforts. After that kick negotiated the posts, the All Blacks conceded a converted try and then held on.

So did Henry, Hansen and Smith. The boss fidgeted and rode the anxiety, urging his team and the timekeepers forward.

Eventually a penalty came to the All Blacks after the full-time siren. McCaw calmed his troops then told Andy Ellis to find touch. The reserves started to charge from the bench. The Webb Ellis Cup was the All Blacks' once again after a 20-year wait.

Finalists

* All Blacks
* Warriors
* Breakers
* Valerie Adams
* Women's Black Sticks
* Lisa Carrington
* Mark Todd
* Andrea Hewitt
* Hamish Bond and Eric Murray
* Crusaders.

- NZ Herald

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