A Stephen Donald penalty added to an early Tony Woodcock score before a try from Thierry Dusautoir set up a tense finish. France have now lost in all three of their World Cup final appearances but they came close in a match where many had written off their chances.
New Zealand began this final under the weight of a nationâ€™s expectation and it was the French who began brighter.
Dimitri Yachvili looked nervous when he kicked out on the full, but France regained possession after a poor All Black line-out and initiated a series of strong attacks. Marshalled by Morgan Parra, the French were organised and disciplined though the All Black defence held firm.
An offside call against Parra gave New Zealand the chance to take the lead against the run of play and, though Weepu missed the kick, the All Blacks pressured the French re-start and established camp in their oppositionâ€™s half. Marc Lievremontâ€™s men were solid in defence but were decisively ragged at an All Black line-out and prop Woodcock was allowed to gallop through the middle untouched and dive over.
Weepu was wide with the conversion and the missed points were slowly racking up for Graham Henryâ€™s charges. Illness was said to have affected the scrum-halfâ€™s kicking in the semi-final, but he was again wayward off the boot and failed in another attempt to stretch his teamâ€™s lead.
The match soon became blighted by injuries as fly-halves Aaron Cruden and Parra both fell foul of a fearsome encounter, with Francois Trinh-Duc and Stephen Donald, himself making his first World Cup appearance, arriving to lead the backlines.
It was Trinh-Duc who made the first impression as he plunged into NZ territory with a scintillating break but he was turned over at the resulting ruck, a common feature in the first half, and New Zealand were happy to kick into touch to reach half-time five points ahead.
France had an early chance to register their first points when NZ captain Richie McCaw was penalised at the breakdown but Yachviliâ€™s kick drifted agonizingly wide. New Zealand were then handed a penalty chance of their own and Donald made no mistake to enhance the All Black lead.
France were still without points on the board though their efforts were soon to be rewarded when captain Dusautoir went over. A stray Weepu kick was gratefully received by Trinh-Duc and he again pierced through the All Black defence.
A Yachvili slip looked to have ended the attack before the ball was quickly recycled and centre AurÃ©lien Rougerie sent Dusautoir over to become only the second captain to score in a World Cup final. Trinh-Duc, having taken kicking duties, added the extras to bring France within a single point of New Zealand.
The French policy of staying out of rucks to ensure an organised defensive line was reaping the rewards as they consistently sent New Zealand attackers retreating. The French back-row, led courageously by Dusautoir, was ruling the roost in the close quarters and suddenly France were looking the more likely victors.
Graham Henry rung the changes in the pack but they could not prevent a strong French scrum yielding a penalty to give Trinh-Duc a chance to take the lead for the first time. The fly half spurned the difficult chance as time began to run out for Les Bleus.
Replacement Jean-Marc Doussain took to the field to replace Yachvili and make his international debut and his inexperience showed when he was pressured by the magnificent NZ back-row into knocking on at the base of a ruck.
From the resulting scrum New Zealand did not relinquish control of the ball as they, and the rest of the nation, counted down the clock to take an historic victory.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu; Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Brad Thorn, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (capt), Kieran Read.
Replacements: Andrew Hore (for Weepu 49), Ben Franks, Ali Williams (for Whitelock 49), Adam Thomson, Andy Ellis (for Weepu 50), Stephen Donald (for Cruden 34), Sonny Bill Williams (for Nonu 76).
France: Maxime MÃ©dard, Vincent Clerc, AurÃ©lien Rougerie Maxime Mermoz, Alexis Palisson, Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili; Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat, Nicolas Mas, Pascal PapÃ©, Lionel Nallet, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy.
Replacements: Dimitri Szarzewski (for Servat 65), Fabien Barcella (for Poux 65), Julien Pierre (for PapÃ© 70), Fulgence Ouedraogo, Jean-Marc Doussain (for Yachvili 76), FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc (for Parra 23), Damien Traille (for Clerc 48).
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
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