The All Blacks won the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time in seven attempts, defending grimly to hold onto an 8–7 lead over France in front of 61,000 spectators at Eden Park, Auckland. This ground had also been the venue for New Zealand’s previous Rugby World Cup triumph, on 20 June 1987.
In the 24 years between the two tournaments, the All Blacks won 194 and lost 47 of their 245 tests, a winning rate of nearly 80%. They won the Tri-Nations Series, contested annually against their strongest rivals Australia and South Africa, 10 times out of 16. They won series against the British and Irish Lions in 1993 and 2005, and achieved Grand Slams over all four home unions in 2005, 2008 and 2010. The All Blacks could probably walk on water. What they could not do was win a Rugby World Cup.
The 1991 All Blacks, past their best and with incompatible coaches, lost a semi-final to eventual world champions Australia. The 1995 team was the strongest at the tournament but were beaten in the final by food poisoning and an inspirational opposing captain – South African President Nelson Mandela. In 1999, a competent All Blacks side was undone by 30 minutes of French magic. The 2003 team lost a semi-final to an Australian team it had recently beaten 51–20. As for 2007, the less said about Cardiff, referee Wayne Barnes and quarterfinal opponents France, the better...
In 2011, New Zealand hosted the tournament for the first time since 1987. More than 130,000 overseas visitors attended matches at 12 venues. The spring weather was mostly kind, and the only shadow on the tournament was the devastating 22 February 2011 earthquake, which meant that no matches could be played in Christchurch. And All Blacks’ first-five-eighths kept suffering tournament-ending injuries….
All Blacks’ head coach Graham Henry was nicknamed ‘The Great Redeemer’ during a stint coaching Wales. This was his opportunity for redemption back home – he had coached the ill-fated 2007 All Blacks. All four pool matches, including one against France, were won easily before Argentina and Australia were despatched in knock-out matches. France somehow made it to the final, despite losing to Tonga, amid reports that the players had in effect sacked coach Marc Lièvremont. What could possibly go wrong for the hosts?
The French advanced on the pre-match haka and seldom took a backward step thereafter. Before halftime, fourth-choice first-five Stephen Donald was on the pitch. Called back from holiday and visibly not at peak fitness, he became an unlikely hero by kicking a wobbly penalty that ultimately secured victory. The real hero of the hour was captain Richie McCaw, who played the knockout matches with a broken bone in his foot.