‘We can rest in peace’, says RWC-winning coach, Graham Henry
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This was a memorable Rugby World Cup final. It was a titanic battle with both sides playing with power and passion. It was unbelievably tense. And in the last half hour, the game wobbled over the abyss for the All Blacks after Thierry Dusautoir scored under the posts to take the score to 8 – 7 to the All Blacks.
Would France score the upset of all upsets and the All Blacks add another chapter to the chronicles of the choke?
The Dusaitoir try came from consecutive errors by Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu.
Weepu had missed 11 points in the first half. Aaron Cruden, the replacement for Dan Carter, was off injured. The momentum of the match was inexorably towards France. Now coach Graham Henry was forced to make a fateful set of decisions.
Would he allow the team that was sinking to scramble its way out of the depths? Or would he bring on replacements in the hope that somehow the new players would lift the team, its spirit and its energy levels?
These are the moments when coaches earn their money and, in the case of the All Blacks coach Graham Henry, a place as an immortal in the annals of New Zealand. He reacted positively.
On trotted Andrew Hore, Ali Williams and Andy Ellis. These three players helped to turn the tide.
In the 70th minute through to the 74th minute France put on a 14 phase attack as they marched relentlessly forward to set up a drop goal or a penalty. The All Blacks forced a scrum. Then they forced a turnover. They took play into France’s half.
They smashed, drove and bull-dozed their way as the minutes and second counted down.
Then a penalty was won.
Hore had to find his jumper to ensure the closing out of the match. Could he do it? The French lineout was strong and combative all match. Hore fired his throw to the old man of the All Blacks, Brad Thorn.
Thorn’s last play as an All Black was to make the catch. It was a case of a big match player (who was three years older than the excellent South African referee Craig Joubert) delivering his last big play.
In the end the All Blacks were down to their number four five-eighths, Stephen Donald. Two weeks ago, he was white-bait fishing and preparing and getting fit to start in a couple of weeks for his new club in England, Bath.
And here another decision by coach Henry was decisive.
It was Donald who was given the penalty shot not long after half-time that would, if successful, take the All Blacks into an 8-point comfortable lead (in the context of a match that was all about defence).
It is safe to say that Donald is not a favourite player of the New Zealand rugby public.
He is still remembered for his horrendous play in the final 10 minutes of the Australia-New Zealand Test at Hong Kong last year. Donald’s inept and brain-dead play single-handedly allowed the Wallabies to snatch a sensational victory.
Before the 2011 RWC tournament started, if someone had told New Zealanders that Stephen Donald was going to be one of the heroes of the All Blacks final victory, that person would have been shouted down with cries of “No way, it could never happen.”
As it happened, it did happen.
Donald marched up to the mark for the crucial penalty shot. He lined it up. You could see his lips moving with a mantra, perhaps: “head down, kick through the ball”. The kick was a solid one. It deviated slightly from the straight line. But not enough to take the ball outside the line of the posts.
I was on a radio panel on Sunday morning. At its end, we were asked to predict the result. The convener refused to allow me my usual escape of saying “that’s what we have the match to find out”, so I went along with my fellow panelist that it would be a “12 to 18 point victory to the All Blacks”.
But I did point out that if any team could defeat the All Blacks in the RWC 2011 tournament, that team would be France.
Because they had the all-field game that could challenge the All Blacks (if France was on song) in every aspect of the play. Their pack was much superior to, say, the Wallabies pack.
Their backs, too, were much superior in skills and speed than, say, the Springboks and England, particularly, two sides with strong forward packs.
Throughout the tournament the French backs had under-played their game, scoring 15 tries to the 39 by the All Blacks going into the final.
But there has never been a French backline that is not comfortable with the ball in hand. And, in the final, this truism was realised. France surprised and disconcerted the All Blacks by often spreading the ball and frequently running the ball from the back.
As the cliche goes with France, it “depends which team turns up to play”. The team that played so splendidly in the final was up for the match, tactically and mentally.
You got a sense of this from the new method that was used to confront the All Blacks fearsome, throat-slitting Kapu O Pango haka.
As the All Blacks started their chanting and thigh slapping the French set themselves in a big V for Victory formation. The formation then moved forward into a straight line on the half-way mark (defying the IRB protocol, kept by the All Blacks, of teams having to stay behind their own 10m marks during hakas and war dances).
Then the straight line moved again into the V formation.
This was a brilliant response. It seemed to surprise and possibly unsettle the All Blacks.
I thought that the haka did not have the intensity of the haka produced before the match against the Wallabies. And it just may have been true that in their heart of hearts they believed that their real final had been played in the semi-final.
In the celebrations after the final whistle, Henry told the crowd, television viewers and radio listeners that “we can rest in peace”.
It was a concession that not winning a RWC tournament after winning the first 1987 was beginning to eat away at the New Zealand psyche. Henry is widely tipped to be honoured with a knighthood by a grateful Prime Minister John Key, who is facing his own test in a general election in November.
Another candidate for a knighthood, but probably when he retires, is Richie McCaw.
He played a mighty match, even though his foot is more badly injured than he was prepared to admit at any time in the tournament. With about 6 minutes of time left in the match, and with the All Blacks struggling to contain a relentless French side that believed it could snatch a victory, McCaw went down injured.
There was concern about whether he could continue.
I was listening to a radio commentary at the time. The broadcaster was virtually begging McCaw not to continue playing as he looked seriously injured. Then there was a huge explosion of roaring applause. McCaw was on his feet and gingerly taking his place in the scrum.
In the last minutes, when the All Blacks made their final driving onslaught, it was McCaw who lead the charges. This was a triumph of leadership and guts and toughness, and a reason why he is now ranked with the legendary Colin Meads as the greatest of the All Blacks in modern times.
Asked about the game and the result, McCaw showed his intelligence and balance: “At some stage, some All Black team was going to do”.
There is a fearsome prospect in store for all the other major rugby nations in World Cup tournaments to come, starting with RWC 2015 in England. It was 24 years ago that the All Blacks had previously won a World Cup.
The team is often called ‘the Brazil of world rugby,’ which is a tribute to a great football side and a great rugby side.
A Roar reader pointed out to me earlier in the year that Brazil went 24 years between winning Football World Cups in the 1950s and then in the 1980s. Will a similar pattern of victories play itself out for the All Blacks now that they have re-set the cycle of victories?
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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