Sitting down to watch the RWC Final on Sunday morning, I knew that I would witness some sort of history in the making, but I assumed that it would be an 80 minute coronation of the All Blacks.
The Crown Prince, Richie McCaw and his men would confirm and justify their tag of ‘Best Team in the World’.
By the end, however, it was more of a splutter and gasp across the line.
Not that it will matter one jot to McCaw or Graham Henry, but France deserve enormous credit for delivering a performance when it mattered most.
It wasn’t quite as intense as Ireland’s effort under the leadership of Willie Anderson, but still, in facing down the Haka, France looked as if they meant business.
They threw off the disharmony and internal disputes to explode into life, displaying both pride and no lack of skill.
New Zealand may have had an average of 60 caps per man, but the two outstanding players on the pitch were French backrowers, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusatoir (pictured), who knew that this was their own chance of glory and redemption.
Rarely do finals conjure up moments of magic.
They are edgy, nervy affairs, and while the 8-7 scoreline suggests a monumental armwrestle, it was compelling viewing.
You could see why New Zealand miss Dan Carter so much.
While they should have built up a healthy lead by halftime, Piri Weepu had left his boots in the changing-room.
Not only in terms of place kicking, without Carter the All Blacks were lacking in shape and direction.
They had to scrap it out, and maybe their victory will be that bit more satisfying as a result.
The game demanded that Graham Henry’s men had to dig deep inside and use their survival instincts and rugby nous to come through in the end.
This rugby intelligence and ability to react to a situation was displayed on numerous occasions, but one stood out — Tony Woodcock’s try.
A rare visit to |||the French 22, the All Blacks were ruthless and lethal through a lineout straight off the training pitch.
Research must have shown that France would compete against both pods.
Thus, one All Black attacking pod went forward, while the other moved back, creating the space for Woodcock to come round.
The rest was totally illegal — the front players obstructed their opposite men, who could not get back to make the tackle.
This was missed by Craig Joubert, who also chose to ignore less subtle areas of refereeing e.g. high tackles and taking the man out in the air.
If this is the best referee in the world, heaven help us.
Nonetheless, the history books will only show the final result.
A surprise name in the credits will be Stephen Donald. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and while Donald’s penalty kick may have looked straightforward, the position in front of the posts created further expectation and pressure.
While his kick flirted with the right post, he backed himself and struck it strongly enough to gain the three points.
If he is wise, he will never step on a rugby pitch again in New Zealand.
His work is done and hero status absolute.
Unlike the French, one word
you certainly couldn’t use for the All Blacks is temperamental.
Even their minimum standard of performance is still good enough to beat virtually every other team.
While their attack was largely blunted, they scrapped for every blade of grass and they only know one way in defence.
The way that New Zealand closed out the game in the last three minutes epitomised their approach and presence of mind.
The players, under the guidance of Richie McCaw, were calm and composed. Rather than punt the ball down the pitch, the players took control of possession and never looked like offering up an opportunity.
It is debatable whether the better side on the day won.
Yet, it is a good thing that New Zealand lifted the title.
New Zealand is a small country which has been through a lot. The All Blacks’ journey and sense of internal struggle has provided a shining example to their people in how to deal with adversity and come out the other side.
Now that the monkey is off their backs, they may be even more dangerous in future years.