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June 24, 2017

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NZ edges France in World Cup victory

AUCKLAND -- New Zealand ended 24 years of misery when by edging France 8-7 to win the Rugby World Cup on home soil for a second time here on Sunday.

The All Blacks, who had also won the inaugural 1987 tournament, beating the French in that final too, were made to work hard at Eden Park by a "Les Bleus" team that poured scorn on the view of many pundits that they were the worst side to have ever made a World Cup final.

Veteran prop Tony Woodcock scored the All Blacks' sole try, with replacement fly-half Stephen Donald hitting a second-half penalty as first-choice kicker Piri Weepu let eight points go begging.

France, guilty of playing too much in their own half, hit back with a try from inspirational captain Thierry Dusautoir converted by Francois Trinh-Duc, but it was not enough against a New Zealand side that offered up a tough-as-teak defense.

An enthralling, hard-hitting contest ironically saw both sides lose their playmakers to injury, France's Morgan Parra suffering a nasty blow to the face and the All Blacks' Aaron Cruden turning his knee.

Weepu failed with his opening penalty kick after six frantic minutes with both sides keeping ball in hand, a lot of bluster and side-to-side play not amounting to anything remotely threatening as defenses held firm.

The opening try came from the most unlikeliest of sources, Woodcock crossing in the 15th minute after a well-worked lineout move that saw Jerome Kaino take the ball high at the back and pop it to the loosehead prop as he came through a gap in the middle of the line.

Weepu missed the conversion and then a second penalty after the French tried to run out of their own 22m area but infringed when Woodcock and Brad Thorn effectively counter-rucked.

Weepu and Israel Dagg started to kick to the corners and play the territorial game, Dusautoir and fellow flanker Julien Bonnaire providing stout, swarming defense as the All Blacks used Kieran Read and Ma'a Nonu as midfield battering rams.

But it was Cruden, only playing after tournament-ending groin injuries to Dan Carter and Colin Slade, who was the next casualty, twisting his knee badly in a Trinh-Duc tackle to hand fourth-choice playmaker Donald his World Cup debut.

Trinh-Duc, who impressed in the pivotal role of fly-half after coming on for Parra, missed a 36th minute drop-goal as the French made a rare sortie into the New Zealand half.

The Montpellier playmaker made a scintillating break shortly after, Weepu producing a fantastic tap tackle to bring him down in the 22m area.

The French — beaten twice in the pool stages by both New Zealand, and, stunningly, Tonga — started the second-half exactly as they had hoped by pressuring the All Blacks into an error.

But Dimitri Yachvili missed the tricky penalty kick after New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, who again had a tremendous game in the loose, infringed at a ruck.

Donald took over the kicking duties from the faltering Weepu, and hit a 35-meter penalty in the 46th minute.

But the French came firing back, going through several phases before Dusautoir barreled through Weepu's poor tackle for try Yachvili converted to make it 8-7.

It then looked like panic stations in the All Blacks camp, coach Graham Henry bringing on Andy Ellis for Weepu and also replacing Keven Mealamu and Sam Whitelock.

Trinh-Duc saw a 48-meter penalty effort go wide in the 65th minute, with France in the ascendancy.

But the All Blacks held firm with a gritty defense to deny a France team that will return home with heads held high.

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