Wilkinson grabs glory for England

At the end of the longest game of the longest World Cup ever, the spoils go to England and Jonny Wilkinson.


The triumphant England team with the World Cup. — Pic. MARK NOLAN/GETTY IMAGES-

A wonderful, wonderful night. This occasion would have been compulsive if it had been played out on a scrap heap by two teams of nobodies but to set in a sensational stadium, with the world's finest rugby players at full stretch, and with so much at stake, was to elevate it to the ethereal. If there has been a more dramatic game of rugby of this importance, then I have yet to see it.

And at the end of the longest game of the longest World Cup ever, the spoils go to England and Jonny Wilkinson. His drop goal 25 seconds from the last knockings of the second period of extra-time confirmed England as champions of the world and guaranteed his team-mates long-lasting fame. As for the man himself, immortality beckons.

It would be ruinously crass to ignore the efforts of a magnificent Australian performance. They went into the contest, decided underdogs, but refused to accept the tag. Apart from the first 20 minutes, during which Lote Tuqiri scored their only try, they were rushed, scragged and generally on the back foot. But, clinging hard and true to their sporting culture, Australia fought back.

Twice, once at the end of ordinary time and once at the end of extra-time, Elton Flatley kicked the Wallabies back onto equal terms with nerveless penalties only for Jonny, the Boy Wonder, to step up and finish them off.

And just to show that this England team are worthy of a nation's respect and that rugby has more to offer than cash and status and self-glorification, there was a marvellous moment way after the initial elation of victory had ebbed away as the stadium was being readied for the presentation ceremony.

Quietly, England's front row trio of Jason Leonard, Steve Thompson and Phil Vickery went over to shake the hand of Australian prop Ben Darwin, whose serious neck injury, picked up in the semi-final against New Zealand, kept him out of the final. Sport at this level is rarely so inclusive.

The final was flooded with wonderful memories: the bravery of Stephen Larkham as he went off repeatedly to get a gaping mouth wound stitched; Jason Robinson's twinkling feet and the emotion he showed after scoring England's solitary try; the way Martin Johnson thundered into the Wallabies in the first quarter of the second half; the way Australia, in terrible trouble in the scrummage, rallied to force the game into extra-time; the cool, calm Flatley.

And then there was Wilkinson. Is there no end to the story? Labelled a basket case earlier in the tournament, probed by a thousand putative media psychiatrists at dozens of press conferences, Wilkinson came through to win the World Cup for his country. It was his 24-point haul that destroyed France and his drop goal that brought the Webb Ellis cup home to England for the first time. A smile flickered across his lips as the winner's medal was hung round his neck. He was probably thinking of the couple of kicks that flew wide of the posts.

And yet when England eventually regroup to reflect on the final, they will acknowledge that they should have been home and hosed long before Flatley breathed life into the Wallabies. Apart from the one lapse when Tuqiri exploited a seven inch height advantage to out jump Robinson and collect Larkham's cross-field kick to score, England's defence was rock solid.

Stirling Mortlock, the scourge of the All Black midfield a week earlier, got no change out of Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood, and Larkham, so good at reading and slipping through gaps, was shut out too. Australia's only way back into the match that they were losing 14-5 at half-time came courtesy of referee Andre Watson and a heavily penalised England scrum.

Watson pinged Trevor Woodman for refusing to go down for what would have been the final scrum of ordinary time to allow Flatley his kick. And if that decision had the air of fairness about it, there were plenty that were plain barmy. England were pulverising Australia in the tight yet they conceded five penalties in that area as Watson apparently refused to let the contest develop. It nearly cost England a World Cup, not to mention eviscerating one of rugby's great traditions.

Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop goal for England in the final. — Pic. DAVE ROGERS/GETTY IMAGES-

England's other difficulty centred on the lineout. As they have done throughout the tournament, they continued to throw long and continued to miss the targets at the tail.

Steve Thompson must take some of the flak as the missile launcher but so must Ben Kay, the lineout captain, whose job it is to call the plays. It was Kay's fumble that led to the scrum and the penalty from which Flatley levelled the scores at 14-14 to force extra-time. Flatly hit the kick with 10 seconds remaining.

But enough of the brickbats. In a commendably cohesive and tight team performance, there were many who stood out for England. Matt Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio had their best games of the World Cup, finally finding the link that is so important for continuity. Dawson also exposed a Wallaby weakness as he darted through the middle, and close to the sides, of rucks and mauls.

Robinson was a livewire throughout, a constant thorn when running ball back at Australia. Josh Lewsey threatened early on when Australia were at their best, Ben Cohen got the better of Wendell Sailor in the battle of the big wings and Mike Tindall defended as well as he kicked, both of which he did brilliantly.

And Australia? They were shattered at the death. No shame in that for they punched well above their weight. It was sheer Wallaby cussedness that allowed them to hang on in as long as they did. Decimated in the tight, they had none of the go-forward they found in the semi-final.

George Smith and Phil Waugh ploughed on but eventually they were submerged by a rampant England front five and the boot of Wilkinson.

The final sequence will go down in rugby folklore. Lewis Moody won a lineout, Mike Catt, Dawson and Martin Johnson drove or darted and Wilkinson swung his right boot as he has done so many times on training pitches around Australia. England were home. The cup was home. For four glorious years.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003