New Zealand claimed the 2011 Rugby World Cup crown with a hard-fought 8-7 victory over France in a pulsating clash at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday.
Fourth-choice fly-half Stephen Donald, only drafted into the squad two weeks ago as a result of an injury crisis, proved to be the match-winner with a second-half penalty bringing the All Blacks their first World Cup crown since the inaugural tournament in 1987.
A try from prop Tony Woodcock had given the hosts a narrow lead at the break after a brutal opening period, which saw rival playmakers Aaron Cruden and Morgan Parra both forced out of the game through injury. A gutsy France, infinitely better than the side crushed 37-17 by the All Blacks in the pool stages, hit back with a try from captain Thierry Dusautoir after the break, converted by replacement No.10 Francois Trinh-Duc, but their best performance in the competition by far was not enough to deny New Zealand a fairytale ending.
A fired-up France were obviously determined to prove their doubters wrong and made their intentions clear before the first whistle by staring down the Haka. Led by Dusautoir, they formed up in an arrow-like formation before advancing on their rivals under a barrage of boos from a capacity crowd. The reaction did not bother the French, who carried that intensity into the early exchanges, dominating possession and territory and in doing so reminding everyone that this was not going to be the one-sided clash many had predicted.
The All Blacks weathered that early storm before earning the first scoring opportunity, with France guilty of drifting offside deep inside their own half. The usually reliable boot of scrum-half Piri Weepu failed and he dragged the kick wide in the first of a series of poor kicks.
France's industry continued to bring them reward with centre Aurelien Rougerie leading by example, particularly in defence, but his side's hopes took a blow when Parra came off worst in a collision with All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw. The heavy blow to his head also appeared to leave his team-mates dazed and confused as they allowed the All Blacks to pounce for one of the easiest tries of the tournament.
An excellent throw from hooker Keven Mealamu found flanker Jerome Kaino high at the back of the lineout and he popped the ball down to Woodcock, who was able to stroll over unopposed. Weepu's form deserted him again with the conversion before Parra returned, but his stay was brief with the fly-half eventually forced to make way for Trinh-Duc for the second time.
There was no let up in the intensity, with the All Blacks throwing everything at the French only to be thwarted time and time again. Dusautoir was always at the centre of proceedings, but some strong counter-rucking from New Zealand earned another penalty only for Weepu to slice his latest kick horribly wide.
All Blacks No.8 Kieran Read, a commanding presence throughout, led another raid on the half hour but again it proved to be fruitless, with Rougerie scampering back to clear the danger. It was by no means one-way traffic with hooker William Servat taking France into the All Blacks' 22 only to spill the ball in the tackle.
The brutal nature of the game took its next major casualty shortly after with Cruden hyper-extending his knee in a tackle with Trinh-Duc. Despite his best efforts to play on he eventually hobbled from the field with Donald stepping up off the bench, having only joined the squad in the wake of injuries to fellow fly-halves Dan Carter and Colin Slade. France looked to capitalise immediately with Servat taking his team into drop-goal range but Trinh-Duc's effort was wide of the target. He didn't dwell on the disappointment, with a superb break carrying him through the All Blacks' defence only to be cut down in full stride by a superb tap tackle from Weepu.
France wasted no time in taking the game to the All Blacks again after the break, with a penalty against McCaw at the breakdown gifting Yachvili the chance to put his side on the board but his kick drifted wide. Donald was not so wasteful when he stepped forward moments later to edge his side a little further ahead, after Trinh-Duc was guilty of infringing in the shadow of his own posts.
The All Blacks' joy was short-lived with a fly-hack from Weepu falling straight into Trinh-Duc's hands and sparking a mad scramble. New Zealand re-grouped to shackle Rougerie but France were not to be denied, with Dusautoir powering over a couple of phases later. The simple conversion was no challenge for Trinh-Duc, with the kick bringing his side back to within a point.
The game was anyone's as it entered the final quarter and a great scrum from France gave the chance to take control of the contest but Trinh-Duc's long-range penalty ended like so many before it - wide.
France raised their game once more as the match entered the closing stages but an epic series of phases only resulted in a knock on that gifted the ball back to New Zealand. The crowd were on their feet, in sight of a famous victory, and a long-awaited World Cup triumph was theirs when replacement scrum-half Andy Ellis thumped the ball into touch.