SYDNEY – The unerring boot of Jonny Wilkinson had been the talk of the 2003 Rugby World Cup to date and in a fitting end to an epic final it was his magical right-footed drop goal that won England the William Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time in Sydney on Saturday night.
A Rugby World Cup record crowd of 82,957 at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium saw England see off a determined Australia 20-17 after extra time, in a drama-filled clash, with Wilkinson’s drop goal in the dying seconds.
“It’s undescribable. It’s something we’ve wanted, we’ve worked for so long both individually and as a team,” said Wilkinson following the dramatic victory.
“We’ve said we wanted to win every single game. We’ve put ourselves under that pressure and we knew it was going to be hard,” added Wilkinson, who kicked 15 points in the final.
England had been a minute away from sealing a famous victory after full time but a knock-on in the lineout handed Australia a scrum and an illegal shove gave Australia a penalty and the lifeline it needed.
Elton Flatley held his nerve to nail the penalty and level the score at 14 apiece, sending the game into extra time.
“It was a huge effort by the entire squad of players, coaches and backroom staff, everybody. Thanks to the fans, they were incredible,” said England captain Martin Johnson.
“You’ve got to give credit to Australia,” said Johnson. “They’re a very good team and they made it very difficult for us.”
After getting off to a slow start, England completely dominated the first half.
Australia had shocked its more fancied opponent with a try in the sixth minute through Lote Tuqiri.
A perfectly executed crosskick by flyhalf Stephen Larkham found Tuqiri on the left wing and he outjumped the diminutive Jason Robinson for the score.
Flatley’s attempted conversion hit the upright ominously illustrating the fine line between defeat and victory.
With England controlling possession, it was left to Wilkinson to get about the business of slotting over penalties whenever they came his way. This he achieved with the efficiency of a Japan-made machine, taking the score to 9-5.
The Australian media had spent the week dismissing England’s style of play as boring, but there could be no complaints when England broke through the Wallaby defense for a try just before halftime.
Towering backrower Lawrence Dallaglio broke the line and fed Wilkinson who found Robinson in space down the left. Robinson turned on the burners to speed past the Wallaby cover defense for the try and a 14-5 lead.
It would have been more had England lock Ben Kay wiped the butter from his pregame crumpets off his hands and held onto a straight-forward pass with the tryline at his mercy in the 24th minute.
England came out of the break with fresh kit on but it was Australia which made the fresher start, banging over a penalty in the 48th minute to reduce the deficit to 14-8.
While Australia’s lineouts on its own throw were a shambles, at one point losing three straight, England’s discipline and some dubious refereeing decisions by Andre Watson, got Australia back into the match.
England still had the edge in the frontrow but it was Flatley who converted a 61st-minute penalty to get the Wallabies within touch of England and have England’s coach Clive Woodward reaching for his oxygen mask.
A pulsating extra time saw England bite first with a Wilkinson penalty for good measure. It looked like the end of full time would mirror the end of extra time when Flatley kicked a late penalty, but England pushed forward and with Wilkinson lying deep the only remaining doubt was which foot he would use to raise the cup.
Australia, while outclassed in most aspects of the game, used guts and fire to stay in the contest and for this deserves credit.
“Congratulations must be extended to England, they delivered under pressure and they delivered when it counted,” Australia captain George Gregan said.
“But I’m so proud of my guys, we gutsed it out we fought back, we brought it back to extra time.”
But it was always going to take something special to achieve what no other team had managed to do in the World Cup and that was to undo England’s successful game plan and Wilkinson’s laces.
Woodward was overjoyed with the victory.
“I just want say a massive thanks to every fan in the stadium tonight. It was just fantastic. I’m speechless. It’s just unbelievable.”
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