Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Agonising tension until final whistle

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Usually Mt Eden looks to ease quietly towards thoughts of sleep on a Sunday night and the start to the working week.

But a year ago, the suburb was in a frenzy. All points led to Eden Park as the All Blacks waited their chance to emulate their predecessors from 1987.

It was the nation's greatest rugby inquiry since the All Blacks were pipped by illness and a dropped goal in extra time in South Africa in 1995.

Most of the worry from two months before had dissipated. In that time the All Blacks were beaten by the Springboks and Wallabies in their final two tests leading into the tournament. They were chilling blows but gave the coaches all the ingredients they needed to keep the side on task.

The All Blacks breezed through pool play, tightened at quarter-final time against Argentina and slammed their foot down hard on the Wallabies in the semifinal.

One more win, one victory stood between the class of 2011 emulating the 1987 Hall of Famers. Coach Graham Henry was interviewed before the decider against France and told the audience that success would mean "peace, internal peace".

His insides and those in the huge crowd who packed into the stadium did not stop churning until referee Craig Joubert blew a halt, with the All Blacks a golden point ahead at 8-7.

For 33 minutes, the All Blacks fought to hold that precarious lead, avoiding Joubert's wrath for most of that time though they had to dodge one bullet when Francois Trinh-Duc pushed a long-range penalty wide.

Captain Richie McCaw and centre Conrad Smith heard the final hooter and implored replacement halfback Andy Ellis to kick the ball out.

Before he could, Joubert blew a penalty and after a double check the game was done; Ellis booted the ball deep into the throng in the grandstand - the pain of five previous World Cup campaigns dissolved.

The ache of those tournaments ebbed away while the relief flowed through the All Blacks and their coaching staff. It had been way too close. The artery-tightening pressure of the Webb Ellis Cup duel, the expectation of the nation, the wounds of history and French bravery had weighed down the All Blacks.

They had beaten France 37-17 in pool play before France then lost to Tonga. But in the weird mix of qualifying and French rugby, that did not matter as they brought a resolve which had been missing from their previous work.

Four of the All Blacks' starting side - Israel Dagg, Aaron Cruden, Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks - were not alive when New Zealand won the inaugural tournament in 1987. Even for those who watched that match, that triumph seemed to be in some distant age.

There was emotion and torment welling long before kickoff. A pack of former greats breathed their thoughts to global television audiences. Men like Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Lynagh, Francois Pienaar, George Gregan, Phil Kearns, John Eales, Rod Kafer, Greg Martin and Agustin Pichot delivered their last theories.

McCaw came on to the track 40 minutes before kickoff, testing his foot injury which had reduced his training impact and been a well-hidden secret.

Brad Thorn looked even more stern before his final test, perhaps remembering his time at the 2003 event, as injured teammates Daniel Carter, Mils Muliaina and Colin Slade sat uncertainly in their seats.

Referee Joubert brushed away some moisture round his eyes as the national anthems boomed out before the French advanced in arrowhead formation towards the All Black haka.

Bluff, double-bluff or a real sign of intent? We soon found out.

France arrived 90 minutes before the start, bristling at being seen as making up the numbers for this seventh global title decider. On the evidence of their scratchy pool play then fortune to beat Wales who had captain Sam Warburton sent off, most pundits dismissed France as a real threat. They had played particularly well to beat England but little more. There was dissension in the ranks about coach Marc Lievremont, but that sort of chatter seems to accompany every French side.

Apart from the debut 1987 festival, the history of World Cup finals tells us there is little in these contests.

The All Blacks destroyed France 29-9 that day, they beat them by the same margin in pool play and many thought a similar margin was possible in the 2011 decider.

The tournament had shown a divide in the teams' talent and application but finals tended to narrow some of those differences.

Early nerves were on show with Morgan Parra kicking out on the full and the All Blacks losing their first lineout. The strain was everywhere, there was an edge to the crowd's encouragement and both sets of coaches were agitated.

That tension stayed until Joubert's final blast on his whistle and McCaw could sink to his knees in relief as his busted foot couldn't cope with much more. "We've won. I should be happy. All I feel is relief," he says in his book. "It's finished. I can stop. I don't have to do this anymore."

Now the All Blacks have to turn their attention to winning a World Cup offshore, with that target already taking a little shape as coach Steve Hansen prepares to take his unbeaten squad to the UK and Europe.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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