It is just like New Zealand to be the best side in the business between World Cups – and sometimes during them – yet find themselves second best when the Webb Ellis Trophy is up for grabs. It is profoundly unlike New Zealand to find a solution to such an impenetrable conundrum with the pressure gauge deep in the red zone and the heat close to unbearable, yet this is what they achieved in winning their home tournament by the slenderest possible margin in front of a full house of Aucklanders who, as the clock ticked down to zero, did not know whether to laugh, cry or phone the Samaritans.
How did they manage this victory – their first in a final for almost a quarter of a century – against a French side who made a joyous mockery of reports that they were divided, dysfunctional, desperate? It was not, for once, the head coach Graham Henry who offered the most compelling answer. The shafts of light came from his principal assistants on the back-room staff.
"Sometimes," said Wayne Smith, "it comes down to what you have under the silver fern and what you have in the top two inches." Heart and brains, in other words. And Steve Hansen? Even better. "What matters is not only belief in yourself, but belief in the bloke alongside you. That belief is bone-deep in this team. Without it, the score goes the other way."
For much of the last hour of this captivating final – perhaps the best final of the seven played since the first global tournament began on this same patch of North Island turf in 1987 – the score seemed almost certain to the go the wrong way from the favourites' point of view. Les Bleus, playing in a strip so angelically white that it might have been chosen specifically to scorn those New Zealand pundits who had spent the week accusing them of being the dirtiest side on God's earth, dominated possession to such a degree that the All Blacks were reduced to playing anti-rugby: eating up time by setting ruck after ruck and inching their way towards the finishing line.
It was not meant to be like this – at least, not for those poor misguided souls who believed a French victory would somehow leave a stain on the sport that might take decades to rinse out. But then, who seriously believed Marc Lièvremont's side could fly in the face of an entire tournament's worth of evidence and play with such drive, such ferocity and, yes, such panache? The final was always likely to be closely fought: these games always are. It was just that so few people expected the underdogs to reduce the New Zealanders to mere tackling machines. Who played all the rugby? Not the All Blacks.
At the heart of the uprising was the captain Thierry Dusautoir, a flanker who has a track record of making New Zealanders think twice in World Cup matches and who touched greatness with his performance here. Alongside him, first and foremost, were the lock Lionel Nallet and the No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, both of whom outplayed their opposite numbers by a distance. Behind them, Dimitri Yachvili played his usual crafty hand at scrum-half. By comparison, the likes of Piri Weepu – such a force for the home side in previous rounds – were outclassed.
Had Yachvili been fit to kick at goal – the haematoma on his right thigh removed his long-range accuracy from the Tricolore armoury – France might well have won. To make matters more difficult still, they had to play most of the game without their first-choice stand-off, Morgan Parra, who was clattered by Richie McCaw after completing a fine low tackle on the rampaging Ma'a Nonu in centre field. McCaw certainly caught Parra in the face with his knee as he drove into the ruck on clear-out duty, and perhaps with his fist too. Purely accidental? Only the All Black skipper can say for sure.
If France were aggrieved at losing Parra, they had even more reason to spit tacks at the refereeing of the South African official, Craig Joubert, whose decision-making in the first half was laughably one-sided. Both Dusautoir and his coach, Lièvremont, kept their counsel afterwards – "I told Joubert in the week that he was the best referee in the world, and that whatever happened in the final, I would not criticise him," said the latter, pointedly – but there was no doubting their frustration. One of his scrum calls against the strong-scrummaging prop Jean-Baptiste Poux was hilarious. Or rather, it would have been had it not cost the French a hard-earned attacking position.
By that time, the All Blacks had opened the scoring in unlikely fashion, a clever line-out routine bearing fruit to such a degree that Tony Woodcock, not particularly quick even by propping standards, was able to run through a gap the width of the Waikato and touch down unchallenged. Weepu missed the conversion, as he would miss everything else and, thus encouraged, the French took charge. After 40 minutes, it was Weepu who hacked the ball high into the crowd to bring the half to an end – a sure sign that the New Zealanders were the ones who needed to regroup.
All this came as no surprise to McCaw, who had sensed the depth of Les Bleus' determination as the pre-match haka unfolded. As the All Blacks performed the more modern, more threatening version of the war dance, the French responded by standing in arrowhead formation and moving steadily towards their rivals. "The game doesn't start until the whistle sounds," said the flanker, "but they sure showed us what we were in for."
There was more to come after the break, even though Stephen Donald, the Bath-bound outside-half who started this tournament as New Zealand's No 4 No 10 – No 6 if you count the exiles, Nick Evans and Luke McAlister – stretched the lead to eight points with a penalty. ("The poor bugger was whitebaiting on some river a couple of weeks ago," said an admiring Hansen of the man called in to cover for the injured Daniel Carter and Colin Slade, and sent on to replace the stricken Aaron Cruden.)
The eight-point advantage was only a minute old when Aurélien Rougerie made a mess of an All Black ruck, Weepu miskicked the ball into the grateful hands of the dangerous François Trinh-Duc and Dusautoir finished of a thrilling attack at the sticks. From there on in, it was, as Lièvremont said, one-way traffic. Yet try as they might, the French could not give themselves a clear sight of the All Blacks' line. To his eternal credit, Dusautoir reacted in defeat as he would have reacted in victory: with consummate grace.
"Perhaps we were lucky in the earlier rounds; perhaps we were unlucky here in the final," he said. "That's part of the game, part of sport. It's still a great story." Too right. There cannot have been many occasions when a player as revered as McCaw wins the grandest prize in the whole of rugby, in front of his own adoring countrymen, and goes as close as this to being upstaged. It is indeed a tale worth telling.
New Zealand: Try Woodcock. Penalty Donald.
France: Try Dusautoir. Conversion Trinh-Duc.
New Zealand I Dagg; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu (S Williams, 77), R Kahui; A Cruden (S Donald, 37), P Weepu (A Ellis, 49); A Woodcock, K Mealamu (A Hore, 48), O Franks, B Thorn, S Whitelock (A Williams, 48), J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), K Read.
France M Medard; V Clerc (D Traille, 46), A Rougerie, M Mermoz, A Palisson; M Parra (F Trinh-Duc, 12-17 and 22), D Yachvili (J M Doussain, 77); J-B Poux (F Barcella, 65), W Servat (D Szarzewski, 65), N Mas, P Pape (J Pierre, 70), L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), J Bonnaire, I Harinordoquy.
Referee C Joubert (South Africa).