Dawson's final glory in the duel within a battle

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The Independent Online

He saved the best pass until last. Matt Dawson had chucked out some rubbish, as he would probably describe it, but if the secret of great comedy is timing, then every tragic look on an Australian face told you that it serves equally as well in rugby, too.

There will be endless replays of Jonny Wilkinson's winning drop kick, and if there is any justice they will always be rewound far enough to show Dawson slicing precious metres off the distance to the target. There, in a few seconds, was the long and the short of the scrum-half's lot. The link between forwards and backs. Simple, really.

It could easily have been Dawson's opposite number, George Gregan, who stole the glory. His goal was to emulate Nick Farr-Jones as a victorious captain in the gold No 9 jersey. Not for want of trying did he fail, having guided a marvellous fightback from a nine-point deficit at half-time. We could only guess at Gregan's thoughts as he stared into space, turning the runners-up medal over in his hands. But he did not wallow in defeat, instead smiling as he sought the bosom of his family at pitchside.

The ebb and flow gave neither man the chance to display his full range of skills. Dawson's lofted passes made life difficult for the receiver, but he did not fret, or blame the rain, or even the referee.

This was not the sometimes petulant player of old, the one who attracted scorn when injured at Northampton by watching training from the comfort of his Mercedes. Not the man who, when he fell out of love with the Lions' management on the tour of Australia in 2001, penned a vicious "dear diary" and almost got booted off the trip.

Dawson had not always appeared fully fit during this World Cup. Since mini-rugby days at Marlow, he has spent a quarter of a century standing sentry in the crucial semi-circle of turf at the rear of scrum, ruck and maul. He has roared with Lions - scoring a crucial try on the winning 1997 tour of South Africa - and won a European Cup. Now, in scaling the highest mountain with England, could he hold body and soul together?

Dawson and Gregan were the human barometers of the rising pressure inside the Telstra Stadium. The Australian began well. He dragged Lawrence Dallaglio down at the first scrum, calmly called a penalty kick to touch, and a scrum from a free-kick. Dawson got across the gainline, Dallaglio at his shoulder, after 18 minutes. The two scrum-halves tugged and barged but wasted no energy in sledging or barracking. It was serious stuff.

Gregan did not panic when his fly-half, Steve Larkham, trotted on and off for treatment to a facial wound. Only Dawson will know if he hesitated for a split second - albeit betrayed by a healthy mistrust of a lock-forward - when it seemed Ben Kay would be in for a try with 25 minutes gone. England were not generating momentum at the maul, and the domino effect denied Dawson the opportunity to attack. But he remained patient, gently cajoling Wilkinson.

Staying out of the rucks, to which he had been drawn earlier in the tournament, Dawson kept Gregan honest, as the Aussies put it. Gregan left it to the big men to formulate the last five minutes of normal time. No need for advice. Dawson dived into a scrum, a borderline act that might have conceded a penalty. It was reset, in any case, and Andre Watson's whistle allowed Elton Flatley to equalise.

Into extra-time: pulses racing, palms sweating, yes, even inside the fashionable mittens. Yet from both men, calmness in the eye of the storm. An England penalty, and more composed words from Dawson to Wilkinson before the kick went over. Gregan, off a steady scrum, broke 10 metres followed by a canny grubber. Dawson slithered in the wet behind a line-out, then, grounded at a ruck, looked up to see Gregan again gesturing for Flatley to go for the sticks. 17-17.

The ultimate sequence. Eighty thousand in the stadium and millions beyond knew the drill. Dawson, when the pandemonium dies down, if indeed it ever does, may reflect he had been this way before - feeding Jerry Guscott for the Lions' decisive drop goal in Durban in '97.

Then, Guscott joked of the look of panic on Dawson's face. Not here. Clear-eyed and clear of thought, England's most decorated scrum-half pretended to pass, sniped that little bit further, and left the rest to Wilkinson.

Gregan had been the world champion scrum-half since November 1999. With good grace and a good game, he dive-passed that title to Matt Dawson.