James Lawton: Dagg leads assault as champions-elect touch greatness
Australia put through the wringer before the 'unfinished business' of France in the final
New Zealand have won their second World Cup, the first since the inaugural tournament 24 years ago, with rugby that separates itself, at times quite utterly, from the rest of the field.
Some pedants will no doubt rush to point out that Richie McCaw and his men have some details to attend to next weekend, but anyone in Eden Park yesterday will surely point out that all of them, not least the notional opposition of France, are quite inconsequential.
The All Blacks made an unequivocal statement of superiority a few hours after French coach Marc Lièvremont, having discovered that he had not dreamt that France had beaten a 14-man Wales the night before, had once again declared war on his occasionally brilliant but essentially mutinous team.
Australia were not just beaten by New Zealand, the nation they love to taunt. They were put through the rugby equivalent of a threshing machine and it is to their great credit that shortly before the end of an astonishing, powerful first-half showing by the All Blacks they were still trailing by just one score. That was the fact of it but there was another reality. It was that they had performed epically just to avoid dismemberment along with the certainty of defeat.
The New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, who was required to fight for his career after France knocked the All Blacks out of the last World Cup, as they had with a similarly sublime eruption eight years earlier, looked like a man who had been released from jail when he announced: "I am extremely proud of my team. They showed superb character tonight. They knew they had a job to do [twice Australia had ejected New Zealand at the semi-final stage] and now we just have to come down from this match over the next few days. We will not forget we have unfinished business. There is quite a bit of history when we play the French."
Henry, perhaps not surprisingly, saved his highest praise for his captain McCaw, who has been New Zealand's principal cause of concern since national icon Daniel Carter was cut down by injury. McCaw has been playing, and training extremely lightly, on an injured foot but he looked about as impaired as King Kong dismantling the Empire State Building while subduing to the point of oblivion Australia's star flanker David Pocock.
McCaw revealed that at the final scrum Australia's wonderfully resourceful scrum-half Will Genia nodded his respects and conceded that the issue was all run out.
That was a moment of some grace in the history of a rivalry that has from time to time sunk pretty much to gutter level in the matter of mutual abuse and mockery. Yesterday was no time for such pettiness, however, and even Australia's widely reviled New Zealand-born fly-half Quade Cooper, who started the game catastrophically and to a chorus of jeers when he sent the kick-off out of bounds and conceded a scrum, had earned some grudging respect before the end of a draining night. When asked about the Kiwi habit of trashing Cooper, Henry was less than repentant on behalf of his countrymen, pointing out that some of Cooper's past provocations had created inevitable hostility on the terraces and down on the field. But he did concede that Cooper had shown considerable competitive nerve in fighting for a foothold in a game in which Australia's best moment came in a superb run by Digby Ioane.
Had the wing won more than a penalty it would have marked one of the most spectacular comebacks since George Foreman fell victim of rope-a-dope. The All Blacks, though, held the kind of edge enjoyed by Muhammad Ali. It was exerted in one of the most coherent team performances anyone is ever likely to see on a rugby field and was marked by some outstanding individual performances.
Barely a week before, full-back Israel Dagg and wing Cory Jane had to be dragged from a bar in which they had allegedly rendered themselves near senseless. Now they were hell-bent on redemption. Young fly-half Aaron Cruden, third choice behind the stricken maestro Carter, played with such poise and invention that his perfectly struck drop goal seemed routine.
Nothing matched, however, the extraordinary assault launched by Dagg. He had already brought terror to the Australian cover when after six minutes he made an electrifying dash for the line before producing something close to the ultimate off-load, which was exploited with great athleticism by Ma'a Nonu.
It was a try – yes, we can dare to say it, worthy of the new world champions.
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