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May 1, 2017

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Stephen Donald steps up as unlikely All Blacks hero

AUCKLAND -- New Zealand found an unlikely hero in fly-half Stephen Donald in their gripping 8-7 World Cup final win over France at Eden Park here on Sunday.

Donald, who wasn't named in the original 30-man squad and was called in as the fourth fly-half to answer an injury crisis, came into the tense final when Aaron Cruden was forced off with a knee injury late in the opening 40 minutes.

He quickly fitted in and landed a pressure penalty goal in the 46th minute which ultimately proved the difference after Les Bleus had set up a terrific finish with a converted try by man-of-the-match Thierry Dusautoir a minute later.

Donald, who was unwinding down fishing earlier this month when the call came from through to join the Kiwi squad, became the All Blacks' fourth fly-half used at the World Cup.

"It's tough to put into words, it hasn't sunk in yet," Donald said after collecting his winner's medal. "I guess it won't for a while. In a couple of weeks, I guess I will look down at this gold medal and be a very proud man."

New Zealand have had wretched luck with number tens at the tournament, losing first-choice playmaker Dan Carter and his understudy Colin Slade, both with groin injuries.

"To lose a guy like Dan Carter (is very difficult) but the next guy stepped up and then the next guy," said All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.

"I take my hat off to 'Beaver' (Donald) but it is hard to pick out one guy."

Cruden was the third number ten used and starred in last weekend's 20-6 semifinal win over Australia, but came to grief in the 34th minute when he overextended his right knee in a tackle.

Donald confidently strode up to take over the goalkicking from Piri Weepu, who missed all his first three shots at the posts.

Donald, who is bound for Bath in the English Premiership after the World Cup, landed the goal to put New Zealand 8-0 up early in the second half and then made a strong burst.

But the French sent Kiwi hearts pounding in the capacity 60,000 black-clad crowd when they scored a determined try next to the upright by inspirational captain Dusautoir.

Francois Trinh-Duc's conversion eased France to within one point.

But the All Blacks defended superbly to land their first World Cup title in 24 years since they beat France 29-9, also at Eden Park, in the inaugural 1987 final.

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