Quade Cooper, probably the least popular man in New Zealand, started this second World Cup semi-final with a schoolboy error and ended it on the uncomfortable end of a schoolyard ragging, but in between times he pulled every trick he ever mastered – and a fair few that were still beyond him – in a bold attempt to keep Australia, his adopted country, in the hunt for the Webb Ellis Trophy. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the Wallaby nation, it takes more than a lone rugby conjuror to lead the All Blacks up the garden path in Auckland. There could have been 15 Coopers on the field yesterday and the hosts would still have won going away.
Some of the stuff produced by New Zealand in the opening 20-odd minutes was jaw-dropping: it may have been the best quarter of rugby played by anyone, anywhere, since the French put 33 unanswered points past them at Twickenham at the same stage of the 1999 tournament. A less resourceful side than Australia would have conceded a point a minute for the duration of the onslaught and the fact they emerged from it a mere five points to the bad was on the remarkable side of astonishing. Still, they never quite recovered from the shock.
The whole of New Zealand now believes the job is done: they assume the All Blacks will end their 24-year wait for a world title because they cannot see for the life of them how this current French vintage – so defensive-minded against Wales on Saturday, so negative in so many ways – can possibly resist the likes of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane, Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu. Not to mention a pack greater than the sum of its parts and capable, on this evidence, of generating heat at the breakdown bordering on the molten.
One New Zealander certainly thinks they have it in the bag – and he happens to be the coach of the Wallabies. "The All Blacks showed they are more than capable of winning that final," said Robbie Deans, chastened by the magnitude of his side's defeat. "The will is there, they have an experienced group well versed in what they're trying to achieve and a lot of support around them. They've worked hard for this opportunity: there's a core of people for whom this is the third crack. You can see the desire in the way they approach their work and they'll take some stopping from here on in."
Cooper could not have expected too many favours from his countrymen – neither those on the pitch nor those in the 60,000-strong crowd. He received precisely none. The outside-half booted the kick-off out on the full and then found himself ushering a clever little roller from Piri Weepu into touch four metres from his own line. Suddenly, the All Blacks were in full flood: their tempo was ferocious, their intensity at the tackle area almost blood-curdling. When Dagg, lightning quick at full-back, cut a line into the Wallaby 22, beat Rocky Elsom's covering tackle and flicked a scoring pass inside to Nonu with his foot a gnat's crotchet away from the right touchline, the audience celebrated a truly sensational try with due abandon.
It did not stop there. Australia's best forwards, the flanker David Pocock and the magnificent captain James Horwill, fought hammer and tongs, as did the hooker Stephen Moore, but they were blown away. Weepu, no great shakes as a Test marksman, hit the spot with a penalty on 12 minutes following some lovely quickstep work from Aaron Cruden, and even though James O'Connor cut the deficit in similar style after Digby Ioane's dangerous surge to the All Black line, the writing was on the wall. On any other day, Ioane would have scored. On this day, Jerome Kaino and Keven Mealamu somehow did enough to keep him out.
Cruden's drop goal early in the second quarter was too early in the piece to be decisive, but once the New Zealanders were more than a full score ahead, it was obvious they would take some catching. Had the Wallabies been able to field Kurtley Beale at full-back and keep Adam Ashley-Cooper in midfield, they may have threatened. Had Matt Giteau been in their squad, rather than in a broadcasting studio somewhere, they might have rescued something. As it was, they were a distant second-best.
Even at the last knockings, with the game lost, they could not break the New Zealanders' iron resolve: indeed, when their last attack broke down, the ball was hacked downfield towards the Wallaby corner and Cooper had to tidy up in the face of four rampant All Blacks hell-bent on mischief. To his credit, he tried to stand his ground – but the failure was inevitable. As a summing-up of the previous 79 minutes and 50 seconds, it was perfect.
New Zealand: Try Nonu; Penalties Weepu 4; Drop goal Cruden. Australia: Penalty O'Connor; Drop goal Cooper.
New Zealand I Dagg; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu (S Williams 77), R Kahui; A Cruden, P Weepu (A Ellis, 58; Weepu, 73; Ellis, 78)); A Woodcock, K Mealamu (A Hore, 67), O Franks (B Franks, 84), B Thorn, S Whitelock (A Williams 58), J Kaino (V Vito, 85), R McCaw (capt), K Read.
Australia A Ashley-Cooper; J O'Connor, A Fainga'a (R Horne, 64), P McCabe (B Barnes, 36-h-t and 47), D Ioane; Q Cooper, W Genia; S Kepu (J Slipper, 20), S Moore (T Polota-Nau, 69), B Alexander, D Vickerman (R Simmons, 22-27 and 62), J Horwill (capt), R Elsom, D Pocock, R Samo (B McCalman, 62).
Referee C Joubert (South Africa).