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Wepu's halo slips in World Cup final

Updated: October 23, 2011, 10:04


AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) The Rugby World Cup final should have been the culmination of an outstanding tournament for All Blacks scrumhalf Piri Weepu, whose versatility and can-do spirit transformed him across six weeks from bit player to national icon.

Websites and social networking groups were created in his honor; he was hailed as New Zealand's Mr. Fixit, the quietly spoken go-to-guy who could always be counted on to get the All Blacks out of a tight spot.

Internet pranksters concocted pictures of Weepu dealing with an oil spill, solving the global financial crisis, running for political office.

But he lasted only 48 minutes in Sunday's final before being replaced, his superhero status tarnished after missing three kicks at goal and committing an error which led to France's try.

Weepu had played a key role in guiding New Zealand to the World Cup final, taking over as first-choice scrumhalf early in the tournament then accepting greater and greater responsibility as injuries sidelined flyhalves Daniel Carter and Colin Slade.

He already had on his plate the formidable responsibility of leading the All Blacks' pre-match haka, something he infused with a gusto and feeling derived from his indigenous Maori heritage. In the absence of star flyhalf Carter he became a much more central figure and a key to the All Blacks' gameplan.

He took the kickoffs and restarts, inherited the goalkicking duties. To shield the young flyhalf replacements for Carter, Slade and Aaron Cruden, he took a much greater share of responsibility for the tactical kicking.

All of those duties he handled with alacrity until Sunday when his form fell short of its highest standard. His three missed kicks at goal were penalties in the seventh and 25th minutes and the conversion of a 15th-minute try to prop Tony Woodcock.

In the 47th minute he attempted a fly-kicked clearance of a loose ball near a French ruck but managed only to scoop the ball into the arms of France's replacement flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc. Catching the All Blacks' backline on the backfoot, Trinh-Duc was able to scythe through the defense, penetrating deep into their territory and ultimately setting up a try for French captain Theirry Dusautoir.

A minute later Weepu was replaced by Andy Ellis, called to the bench for the first time at the tournament because of poor form. His match held few of the moments or command or brilliance which had studded his performances throughout the tournament but there was one of vital importance to New Zealand.

In the 36th minute Trinh-Duc, who had replaced the injured Morgan Parra at flyhalf, opened a deep hole in the All Blacks backline defense and cut into their half with space and players in support. He had just begun to straighten and to more clinically focus the attack when he was ankle-tapped by a flying Weepu, bringing the danger to an end.

Weepu seemed dejected at first to be replaced but he recovered his poise in the midst of New Zealand's victory celebration.

"These are moments that I will remember for the rest of my life,'' he said as he celebrated with family and friends.

"It was extraordinary. The French team came out to play and they definitely did that. They showed what they were capable of.''

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