TWICKENHAM (England) • History now beckons the All Blacks. No team have ever retained the World Cup. No team have ever won it three times.
They are now just one step away from achieving both goals on Saturday, after their 20-18 win over South Africa at Twickenham two days ago.
But they could be without talismanic captain Richie McCaw for the title decider.
This semi-final turned on tiny things and that was a critical stage of the game.
NICK MALLETT , former South Africa coach, pointing out that the Springboks did not hammer home the advantage at the start of the second half
Rugby-mad New Zealand faces a nervous wait to see whether McCaw will be cited for his contact on Francois Louw after he felled the Springboks flanker early in the match.
Video footage posted online shows McCaw charging into a ruck after 20 minutes of the match and Louw reeling from a blow as the New Zealand captain brushed past in pursuit of the ball.
Louw said he required 16 stitches to his forehead and four more for another head wound.
The loss of the inspirational 34-year-old to suspension would be a big blow to the All Blacks and a likely sad ending to the playing career of one of the game's finest players.
There were few other worries for the All Blacks, who appeared to emerge without any serious injuries from the highly physical battle.
Graham Henry, who coached the All Blacks to their 2011 World Cup win on home soil, said the Springboks provided the perfect preparation for the final.
"It will be great for next week because they didn't play particularly well but they did the job," Henry, who expressed concern about the 13 penalties conceded during the game - including nine in the first half, told New Zealand radio.
The final scoreline indicated a close game.
But, in truth, the outcome seemed cut and dried until South Africa, leading 12-7 at half-time and with Jerome Kaino of New Zealand in the sin-bin, had a disastrous third quarter.
With a creative backline just waiting to be unleashed, South Africa instead took a conservative approach and their determination to kick rather than keep the ball in hand gifted the momentum back to New Zealand.
With the rain starting to fall, the All Blacks actually closed the gap via a Dan Carter drop goal before the Springboks conceded a try to Beauden Barrett, the New Zealand replacement.
Former South Africa coach Nick Mallett told SuperSport the start of the second half had been the time to hammer home the advantage, not play it safe.
"Those first eight minutes were crucial with New Zealand reduced to 14 men," he said.
"We had to score at least three points during that period and prevent the All Blacks scoring. Instead, New Zealand scored three points and we did not score.
"This semi-final turned on tiny things and that was a critical stage of the game."
The battle between two of the biggest rivals in rugby went down to the wire with never more than a five-point difference between the two teams.
"I guess we did it the hard way today, but that was always going to be the case against the Springboks," said McCaw.
THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS