Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

All Blacks: World Cup victory a triumph over adversity

All Black captain Richie Mccaw lifts the Webb Ellis Trophy Richie. Photo / Getty Images
All Black captain Richie Mccaw lifts the Webb Ellis Trophy Richie. Photo / Getty Images

Groins, feet, hamstrings - we all became experts in disfunctional body parts during the Rugby World Cup.

As Richie McCaw has become used to saying, injuries are an inevitable part of rugby, but the rising casualty list added tension to an All Black campaign that was already stretched to almost unbearable levels.

Going into the World Cup, the second held in New Zealand after the inaugural event of 1987, the All Blacks maintained all the expectation and hope among a Kiwi public desperate to win the William Webb Ellis Cup again was exciting.

They tried to embrace it as a motivational force, which was really all they could do. If it was seen as a burden it surely would have been a millstone around their necks.

But observers could see something different in McCaw, starting in the World Cup opener against Tonga at Eden Park on Friday, September 9.

Moulded in the pragmatic Crusaders franchise, he isn't one to get worked up before a match - he doesn't listen to music to psych himself up, for instance, unlike the majority of his team-mates, but his facial expressions ahead of a game the All Blacks were favoured to win easily were extremely animated.

A sign of things to come? McCaw and his team-mates would have to endure a gripping, almost agonising final against France seven weeks later, but in the meantime he was determined to put things right after the gut-wrenching disappointment of losing to the French in a quarter-final in Cardiff four years previously.

This time they did it but only just - a victory by the narrowest of margins 8-7 - and while the climax featured McCaw triumphantly holding the Webb Ellis Trophy aloft, there were plenty of low points along the way - and most of those involved injuries.

Dan Carter's was the nadir and it came in the most innocuous of circumstances. Carter was "kicking in" the match balls at the captain's run the day before the All Blacks' final pool match against Canada at the Cake Tin. On his fourth and final kick for goal, he tore his groin and collapsed in agony. The pain told him what the doctor's diagnosis would later confirm - his World Cup was over almost before it began.

This, on top of McCaw's constant pain from a foot stress fracture he had been carrying all year, was almost too much to bear for All Blacks supporters.

"I knew it was pretty serious just because of the pain," Carter told a packed news conference in Auckland several days later.

"I've kicked thousands of balls since I was a young fella and I've never had this happen. After kicking the ball I just felt it pop, hence going to ground in agony."

Adding to the anguish was the fact he had been named All Blacks captain for the first time.

"Lying in bed on Saturday night was pretty tough. Looking back on what was probably one of the most craziest days of my life - being made All Blacks captain is something very special and to have that taken away from me through injury and later to find out that my dream of being involved in the World Cup was now over ... so it has been a pretty tough couple of days."

His poise was remarkable given the circumstances and he even empathised with Colin Slade, the Highlander who was next in line for the number 10 jersey he had filled for Carter in the Canada match.

"I feel sorry for him," Carter said. "He's getting a lot of talk, comparing us and things like that. He's a great player and deserves his spot."

Cue groin injury to Slade in the Argentina quarter-final in Auckland. Aaron Cruden, who the All Blacks coaches said had been preparing for the World Cup by falling off his skateboard and drinking beer, had been called in as cover should the unthinkable happen and now he was making his way on to Eden Park to replace the stricken Slade in the most pivotal of positions.

His performance was assured. He distributed well and ran with plenty of confidence but later confided the circumstances were a little overwhelming.

"To be honest I don't think it has fully sunken in," Cruden said afterwards. "A week ago I was sitting on the couch watching the games on TV and now I'm playing in them. I feel very blessed to be here."

With Argentina eventually subdued, the Wallabies were dispatched in the semifinal with a minimum of fuss in what was the most complete All Blacks performance of the tournament. With so much talk about choking at World Cups the All Blacks took great delight in strangling the life out of the Aussies.

Cruden was solid at 10 despite threats from the Wallabies that they would target him. Confidence was high moving on to the big one against France, despite the remarks from every All Blacks player or coach heading into the match that the French could never be underestimated.

After all, the squad was imploding in revolt against their coach Marc Leivremont, just how could they pick themselves up from a comprehensive pool loss to the All Blacks to compete against the form team of the tournament?

A clue came before kick-off when the men in white jerseys, who formed an arrowhead either side of captain Thierry Dusautoir, marched on the haka in a rousing show of unity. Their statement finished only when Craig Joubert blew the whistle for fulltime to the relief of every New Zealand player and supporter around the world.

During those fraught 80 minutes, Stephen Donald, the whitebaiter from Waikato who had been called up along with Cruden as back-up at such short notice, kicked the crucial penalty. He got his opportunity in his slightly ill-fitting number 21 jersey after coming on for the Manawatu player who almost inevitably had injured a knee.

So often criticised, the redemption of the fourth-choice first-five, who would shortly jet off to play for Bath in England, was complete.

Coach Graham Henry probably said it best in the aftermath as he summed up a victory that had been 24 years in the making: "It's something we've dreamed of for a while. We can rest in peace."

All Blacks results at the World Cup

pool matches v Tonga 41-10, v Japan 83-7, v France 37-17, v Canada 79-15; quarter-final v Argentina 33-10; semifinal v Australia 20-6; final v France 8-7.

- APNZ

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