New Zealand fends off France 8-7 in rugby final

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New Zealand fends off France 8-7 in rugby final

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - New Zealand survived the last of an uncanny spate of flyhalf injuries to close a cavernous gap in its rugby history, beating France 8-7 in a gripping Rugby World Cup final to become the third team to win the title twice.

Despite being the perennial favorite, New Zealand hadn’t won the World Cup since hosting the inaugural tournament in 1987. Two of the biggest losses in knockout matches in the intervening 24 years were to France. This time, the All Blacks held on.

“Marvelous. I’m so proud to be a New Zealander,’’ All Blacks coach Graham Henry said. “It’s something we’ve dreamed of for a while. We can rest in peace.’’

All Blacks No. 10 Aaron Cruden limped from the field with a knee injury after 33 minutes, joining predecessors Dan Carter and Colin Slade as casualties of the tournament and leaving New Zealand’s fourth-choice flyhalf, the often vilified Stephen Donald, to sustain its World Cup hopes.

France also lost its starting flyhalf, the adapted scrumhalf Moorage Parra, after only 22 minutes in a match of grim physical attrition and his replacement, Francois Trinh-Duc, played both the hero and villain as a tense final unfolded.

Donald’s international career seemed to have ended when he was held responsible for New Zealand’s loss to Australia in Hong Kong last year and he was about to join English club Bath when he was recalled.

He took over the goalkicking in the second half and landed a penalty that gave New Zealand an 8-0 lead after it had led 5-0 at halftime. It was critical as New Zealand was left with a one-point margin when France hit back with a 47th minute try, then placed New Zealand under withering pressure throughout the second half.

Trinh-Duc had been discarded by coach Marc Lievremont as France’s first-choice flyhalf in favor of Parra, whose experience in the position was minimal.

By a twist, Trinh-Duc came on in the final in the position he seemed pre-destined to play and became one of its most conspicuous figures as the ball followed him with an almost magnetic attraction.

And so, 24 years, four months and three days after New Zealand’s David Kirk became the first winning captain to receive the Webb Ellis Cup, Richie McCaw displayed the trophy to a crowd of 61,000 at the scene of that first victory, Eden Park.

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