LONDON — The debate over who the greatest team is in the professional era is now settled. As Ma’a Nonu rampaged through the Australia defence after the most delicious of offloads from Sonny Bill Williams, the All Blacks’ brutal beauty was there to see in opaque ferociousness. History was made on Saturday night at Twickenham, as this New Zealand team became the first side to win back-to-back titles.
But they were made to work for it. Ben Smith’s was given a yellow card soon after Nonu’s try paved the way for the most astonishing of comebacks. When he was dispatched to the sin bin, the All Blacks were up 21-3. When he came back on the field, they were in danger of being on the ropes, with Australia on a 14-0 run. But then stepped forward the master fly-half of them all.
The drop-goal that killed off the match was 27 years in the making, built on eight years of hurt. When Dan Carter was 6, he used to knock drop-goals over from dawn until dusk in his garden at the family homestead in Southbridge. The left boot swung sweetly through and he dreamt of a World Cup winner’s medal. In the 69th minute, when he received the ball about 46 metres out, there was no hesitation. It was the perfect swing, as he kept his head down, made splendid contact only to then look up and roar as his kick sailed through the posts. A seven-point gap was established, and Australia’s back was broken.
The hurt has been there for Carter. The 2007 World Cup saw him forced off injured in their quarterfinal loss to France; come 2011 and he was another crocked passenger in the stands as Stephen Donald kicked the winning penalty for New Zealand. On Halloween, he banished demons and hammered home the most glorious of full stops into this chapter.
This was a game of lasts and settled scores for the All Blacks. Six of their once-in-a-generation players — Carter, Nonu, Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu — will now head to new pastures but, barring the injured Woodcock, they have been handed fairy-tale endings on the day ghosts appear from their various graves to plague the living.
All five who were in the 23 played a part. Smith’s one-two with Aaron Smith teed up Nehe Milner-Skudder’s score; Nonu grabbed their second; Mealamu brought ballast from the bench, while Carter hammered home the key points.
And then there is McCaw. On a day Australia’s David Pocock cemented his standing as one of the great players in the game today, McCaw lived up to a promise he made in 1998. Sitting with his uncle Bigsy, he was asked to plot out his career as an All Black. His uncle wrote him a target of being a Test openside by 2004 and then eventually being the greatest All Black. He has now achieved that. After each game, McCaw writes in his notebook “start again.” He will have to opt for something different when the sun rises on Sunday and the magnitude of what he has achieved sinks in.
Australia, meanwhile, have been wonderful this World Cup. The All Blacks’ Steve Hansen is one of the game’s greatest coaches but Michael Cheika has performed wonders over the past 12 months to turn them from a rabble to a well-drilled team who just fell short of world-beaters. Pocock was outstanding, as was Kurtley Beale off the bench. They will feel aggrieved at a missed forward pass in the first half that preceded Carter’s third penalty and an infringement that was a couple of phases short of Milner-Skudder’s try. But they will come again: they have talent oozing from the green and gold pores and will only improve.
When Nonu rampaged through the Australia defence, the camera panned to Hansen sitting in the stands. He was emotionless. But inside, even he — the man who has never predicted greatness for the team, has reiterated their space for improvement and has been the master of keeping everything ticking along with wonderful lucidness — would have felt a sense of satisfaction. The World Cup was within their grasp.
Last November, when asked whether they can win the World Cup, he answered: “You don’t have to have the best dog, just the right dog.” What breed of mongrel they are only Hansen knows, but they have been the top dog since the final whistle blew in Auckland when they won in 2011 by a point over France. And their standing as the world’s best team was reiterated with sheer doggedness on Saturday.
The All Blacks will now return to New Zealand to a heroes’ welcome. McCaw will ponder his future; Carter will then head back to Paris to his new life at Racing Metro. Hansen is in the midst of building a house. But the team he built for this game can neither be improved nor, you suspect, surpassed.