All Blacks give themselves chance to bury ghosts
Eden Park, Auckland
"Four more years!" roared the black-shirted celebrants around the stadium as the final whistle blew on New Zealand's semi-final steamrollering, revelling in the chance to ram George Gregan's famous taunt back down the throats of the vanquished Australia team.
You can understand the Kiwi delight, but other numbers made more sense - the 16 years they have waited to reach a World Cup final, the 24-year gap since their only victory and now, after this clinical, crushing win, the seven days that surely separate them from their second.
For all the talk of a trans-Tasman tussle to match the Wallabies' wins of 2003 and 1999, this was a lesson in controlled rugby, the 20-6 margin 17 points shy of what it could have been had the All Blacks landed all their eminently kickable opportunities (four penalties, one conversion, one drop-goal attempt, all missed).
The start was explosive, the forward domination eventually absolute.
In an opening assault so intense that a single green-and-gold shirt wasn't seen in possession in opposition territory for a full 10 minutes, the All Blacks not only opened a lead they never looked close to losing but established the pattern for all that was to follow.
New Zealand have lost nine Test matches since their infamous capitulation to France in the quarter-final of 2007. In every one of those defeats they had scored less than 20 points in the first half. Here they had 14, yet it triggered little of the pre-match anxiety that had gripped Auckland in the days before the match.
Much of that was down to the forwards. The majority of the tight five are in their third crack at a World Cup, and once they had established an early set-piece superiority over their opposite numbers they were in no mood to relinquish it.
It may not have been as pretty as the opening salvo, when the angles cut at pace by Cory Jane and Israel Dagg lit up Eden Park like fizzing fireworks, but it slowly squashed all the vim and vigour from Robbie Deans' dashing young bucks.
Jane was named man of the match, his security under the high ball another Wallaby spark snuffed out, yet two of his team-mates had equally strong claims.
Captain Richie McCaw led from the front in a dominant All Blacks forward display. Picture: AFP
Leading the charge was skipper Richie McCaw, all week the subject of paranoid headlines in local newspapers about the state of his injured right foot but as spring-heeled and iron-clawed at the breakdown as he ever has been.
McCaw has barely been able to train during this tournament, quite literally putting his feet up between matches to let his metatarsal recover. Rather than leave him short of fitness it actually seemed to have re-charged his batteries.
Dagg too was outstanding at full-back. So secure was he in defence, so cool his kicking and so penetrative his running that 100-cap Mils Muliaina was barely missed and never mentioned.
Piri Weepu was not quite in the same bossing form as a week ago against Argentina. He blew three straightforward shots at goal before the interval, two from close enough to draw groans from the dominant Kiwi contingent in the 60,000-strong crowd.
Despite that the scrum-half is clearly every New Zealander's favourite player of the moment, a burgeoning folk hero who might look like John Belushi after a night on the togas but leads the pre-match haka with fire in his eyes and endears himself to his public with a picaresque backstory and up and at 'em attitude.
Before the game his mother, once his coach at junior level, memorably described him as a "p****". His toddler daughter, Keira, was spotted wearing a t-shirt featuring a familiar logo and the words 'KEEP CALM - Piri's On'. In the absence through injury of Dan Carter, he is rapidly becoming the heartbeat of this reshuffled XV.
For the Wallabies this was a chastening sequel to last weekend's remarkable wriggle past South Africa, a miracle win that disguised the flaws first uncovered by Ireland in the group stages.
This time there was no escaping the cold clutches of rugby logic. Australia had just 32% of possession in the critical first half and missed 15 tackles as the All Blacks established their lead.
David Pocock, their stand-out performer in the tournament thus far, found his breakdown burglaries halted by McCaw's old-school policing, referee Craig Joubert far less laissez-faire about hands in rucks and feet off floors than Bryce Lawrence had been a week ago.
An eighth-minute penalty against the open-side brought roars of approval from all around Eden Park, the jackal in the tackle no longer laughing, as decisions continued to pile up in the All Blacks' favour.
Australia's New Zealand-born fly-half Quade Cooper endured a chastening night. Picture: AFP
The biggest boos, of course, were reserved for hapless Quade Cooper, a man whose abject opening moments turned him from public enemy number one to public laughing stock before a single score was on the board.
His first act was to put the kick-off straight into touch, his second to helplessly shepherd a cunning grubber into his own corner as the All Black backs closed in for the kill.
When he then spilled a high ball to cede another attacking opportunity to the country of his birth, you found yourself inventing new entries in the sporting lexicon.
"Quade (v): to crumble under pressure; 'He lost his job after quadeing badly'. 2. (n): the act of messing something up; 'I made a right quade of that raspberry pavlova'.
Cooper recovered, slightly. But this World Cup has been an enormous disappointment for him, his worst run of form in a Wallabies shirt since his debut three years ago.
Robbie Deans denied that he would have liked Matt Giteau on the bench to bring on as the wheels came off. Not all Aussie supporters, after their record defeat in a World Cup match, will be quite so sure.
There is a neat symmetry in the fact that Sunday's final against France will represent a replica of the inaugural final back in 1987. It may get neater still if the result, as many expect, goes exactly the same way.
New Zealand have endured many World Cup horror-shows since David Kirk lifted the Webb-Ellis trophy in the Auckland sunshine that June afternoon.
Everything from intercepted passes to mysterious South African waitresses and one-eyed English referees have been blamed for their failures since, while France themselves have acted as party poopers on two unforgettable occasions.
For Les Blues to poop this one will take one of the more extraordinary upsets. When your own coach describes his players as "a bunch of undisciplined spoilt brats - disobedient, sometimes selfish, always complaining, always whining," you know you've got issues.
There will be nerves afresh this week. There will also never be a better chance to bury those ghosts.