New Zealand's victory at Eden Park yesterday ended 24 years of misery for the rugby-mad nation – and the unlikely hero of the match was an unpopular player who was on a fishing trip, ignoring his mobile phone, when he was parachuted into the squad a fortnight ago.
Stephen Donald, who kicked the penalty that proved pivotal to the All Blacks' first World Cup win since New Zealand hosted the inaugural tournament in 1987, had been blamed for the team's narrow loss to Australia in a Test match in Hong Kong a year ago. Excoriated by fans and commentators alike, his international career seemed to be over. So out of favour was he with the All Blacks, in fact, that he did not even make the training squad. However, injuries to two fly-halves, Dan Carter and Colin Slade, left the coach, Graham Henry, with no choice but to call up Donald. He was fishing in the Waikato river, in the North Island, and it was only after a team-mate, Mils Muliaina, texted him, urging him to answer his phone, that Henry got through.
Last night, yet another injury, this time to Aaron Cruden, saw the fourth-choice fly-half take over after 34 minutes – and today he is a national hero, having redeemed himself spectacularly. "Didn't he do well? Steve Donald... superb!" Henry declared.
For New Zealanders, the 8-7 victory over France is sweet indeed. Rugby is the only sporting arena in which this small, remote country excels internationally, and national pride hinges on the All Blacks' performance.
The team's failure to regain the World Cup trophy after its 1987 win, despite continuing to dominate the world rankings, was intensely frustrating for fans. The last two World Cups – the All Blacks lost to arch-foes Australia in the semi-finals in 2003, and to France in the quarter-finals in 2007 – reinforced the impression that they "choked" on big occasions. Now, though, those humiliations are safely in the past, and fireworks exploded over Eden Park last night as the final whistle sounded. Fans in pubs and bars throughout New Zealand heaved a sigh of relief, and the partying began.
The importance of the win was magnified by the fact that the tournament was played on home soil. In the run-up to yesterday's final, nothing less than the health of the national psyche was said to be at stake.
In the next three days, the All Blacks will stage victory parades in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. Christchurch was supposed to host some World Cup matches, but its stadium was destroyed in the February earthquake.