Rugby World Cup Final: New Zealand 8 France 7; All Blacks Defy Ghosts of History
On the eve of the biggest game of his coaching career, Graham Henry was visited by four ghosts. The reality was the All Black coach couldn't sleep anyway. Well the truth is that many New Zealanders had pithy sleep on the night before the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. Their nerves wrapped around the fact that it had been 24 years since they'd last won the trophy.
So Graham gladly accepted some company of the poltergeist variety. The first ghost who visited Henry (in the tradition of Jacob Marley) was Dave Gallaher. Dave was a friendly ghost, who forewarned Henry of what was to occur that evening.
Dave Gallaher is a legend of All Black history. He was captain of the "originals", the first New Zealand representative side to play rugby outside of Australasia. It was on this tour that the All Blacks were to get their name. An error by a journalist who in bestowing praise on the New Zealand back line was quoted as saying "All Black" performance rather than all backs.
Gallaher lends his name to the trophy that has been contested between the All Blacks and France since 2000. Gallaher was one of three brothers who lost their lives in World War I. He appeared to Henry and told him that his boys must continue fighting the good fight. For a World Cup victory would be down to bravery and stoicness rather than exuberance or cavalier rugby.
The next spirit, was the ghost of World Cups past who shared a simple message. He warned Henry to not forget 1999 or 2007. When it comes to World Cups, the French always save their best games for when they play the All Blacks and in those crunch encounters which history often remembers the most.
The ghost of World Cup present whispered caution around the false pariahs of today's All Black team. This ghost did his best to convince Henry that just because players had performed well against teams like Tonga, Canada or even the Pumas, it did not mean that they would star against the French.
The third ghost talked of the future. He rattled that in reality, Henry's success rate had bought joy to All Blacks supporters. This ghost offered words of comfort and confidence that New Zealand fans were appreciative of what he had achieved over the past four years. Any negativity that could arise from the final would pale in comparison to that which plagued Henry after the All Blacks loss to the French in the Cardiff 2007 quarterfinal.
So Graham Henry awoke happy on Sunday morning. He ventured to Eden Park, his spiritual home, a confident man, He knew the French would take the game to the All Blacks, this is something that had always happened in the past. In fact the French were the last team to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park, in 1994, when they scored a try from the end of the world.
But he knew his team was ready. He had a strong appreciation that the true heroes of his team, were men of unsung praise. The likes of his forwards, uncompromising players like Franks, Woodcock, Mealamu, Thorne, Whitelock, Reid, Hore and Kaino.
The public had fallen in love with stars like Weepu and Sonny Bill Williams, by virtue of misguided fanfare. But Henry well knew, this was to be a game where graft and grunt were more likely to bring rewards than flamboyance or pageantry.
Henry looked in the eyes of destiny with confidence. He saw a force of indignant resplendor envelop the ground. The reality of eight year's hard work would bear rewards for a waiting nation. For it did not matter what the French did, this would be an inevitable victory for the home team.
What unfolded was a game of unbelievable probabilities. The point scorers for the All Blacks were a loosehead prop and a vilified flyhalf. The New Zealanders' defence would allow France few opportunities to score. Like Gallaher at Passchendaele, the New Zealanders would be a team that offered resolute spirit and a stubborn refusal to concede yardage.
The French won the balls that went high in the air, their loose forward trio dominated their illustrious opponents, their scrum was whistled out of the game, and their line out proved world-leading. Yet despite all this they could not muster enough points to break their duck in winning this title (this being their third final). They could not ruin the home nation's party.
It is with hilarity that we must recognise the lines shared by the Sky Television commentary team, English rugby pundit, Stuart Barnes, felt this would be a forty point romping for the All Blacks. He would eat his words at the end of the game by asking who would have thought the French would be able to fight a tough contest.
The final was always going to be a tough game. As the tournament progressed the French improved. Their success buoyed by accuracy, uncompromising tackling, discipline and a grinding consistency that was lost with the folly exhorted by their exubarent coach.This was always going to be a French display based on potential rather than previous performance.
The final epitomised the tournament. Winning rugby was not played out wide, but was found in the breakdown. The heroes of this tournament were not wingers, fullbacks or even midfield maestros. The names that were said aplenty were those of loose forwards. Fitting that the player of the final, was once again bestowed on a member of a losing team, Thierry Dusautoir. And thus once again to a back row forward.
This World Cup was about grinding out results and that's exactly what this All Black team did. They are after all the tournament's only unbeaten team.Something that sort of remind us of the the last FIFA World Cup, where the All Whites also came back from South Africa unbeaten.
In the final, the All Blacks did enough to seal a victory. A result essential to the self-esteem of their nation. The technical brilliance of the New Zealanders was what secured the trophy. It was moments of inspirations, simple acts of courage like the tackles made by their centre Conrad Smith.
The tragedy for the game is that the brilliance of players like Smith is often lost as people get bewildered by the likes of Sonny Bill Williams. Last week SBW came on the field and contributed a shoulder charge, earning him a yellow card. This week when he came on the field, all he managed to do was miss a tackle.
It's a shame for the game, that despite SBW's inadequacies he will still be lauded with praise. Meanwhile the true heroes continue to grind away, applying their skills and making real contributions to All Black victories, with scarce recognition.
It's only fitting that the last moment of glory be shared with the man whose penalty kick ensured that an All Black captain would finally get to lift the trophy again.The man with the two first names, Steven Donald. the fourth choice flyhalf who came in the squad to replace Daniel Carter, Colin Slade and then during the final Aaron Cruden.
Steven Donald is a chastised figure in New Zealand, not because he's necessarily a bad player, but because of him having to cover the No. 10 jersey when Dan Carter is not available. This is a tough assignment, as Carter is a legend of the game.
New Zealanders have high expectations of their flyhalves, performances that Donald could not deliver upon. With his substitute performance, Donald more than anyone has exorcised the ghosts that loomed over his shoulders. The winning penalty, the countless tackles, the breaks and the will power to ensure the All Blacks would fight in a manner that Dave Gallaher would be proud of. This trophy is certainly one for the grafters and not the glory boys whose photos dominate the sports pages.
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