Experience prevails in battle of epic intensity

Australia 17 England 20
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The Independent Online

Experience is not what happens to a team of sportsmen as they go about their business from season to season; experience is what they do with what happens to them. When Clive Woodward finally disappears into the velvety sanctuary of his own knighthood - that much, surely, is his due - he will be remembered first and foremost for bringing together a group of players who extracted every last droplet of knowledge from their adventures on the rugby fields of the world and, when the temperature was close to unbearable, inflicted that accumulated wisdom on the most cussed, bloody-minded opponents they ever encountered.

It was experience that taught them to ignore the ill-informed prognostications of those genuinely arrogant Englishmen who somehow embraced the delusion that victory over the Wallabies was a formality. (In this city, of all places on God's earth? Please). It was experience that persuaded Martin Johnson, truly a captain for the ages, to lead one last assault on the Australian barricades in the dying moments, thereby earning Mr Jonathan Peter Wilkinson MBE an additional nanosecond of time and half-inch of space in which to deliver his coup de grâce. And ultimately, it was experience that cemented Johnson and his men in their conviction that if they could only hang in there and fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds' worth of distance run, all would be well.

"If we have done anything since failing to fulfil our expectations at the last World Cup, we have learned from our defeats. There haven't been many of them - five, I think - and they were painful, but we took on board lessons about match preparation and reaction to pressure, about how not to lose, and never forgot them." These were the initial thoughts of Neil Back, the squint-eyed little obsessive from Leicester who stood shoulder to shoulder - or rather, shoulder to midriff - with the mighty Johnson through thick and thin. It was a timely reminder to some of England's less disciplined sporting practitioners that at the top level, there is no such thing as a free prize.

England were the better side on Saturday, by some distance; despite their trials and tribulations against South Africa and Samoa and Wales, they had looked a more potent unit than the reigning champions throughout the tournament. Yet for all their technical superiority at close quarters, for all the weaponry concealed within the leather of Wilkinson's footwear, for all the operational brilliance of their defensive system - in spite of all these advantages, they won because they knew more about winning. It was a complete vindication of Woodward's "one game at a time" philosophy, which demanded the sacrifice of bold experimentation on the altar of pragmatic immediacy.

Consider these facts, in light of the drama that unfolded. The Wallaby pack had an average age of 26. England's average age? Very nearly 30 - almost an entire World Cup cycle further down the road. More striking still was the disparity in the cap-count. The Australian forwards had 167 international appearances between them, compared to their opponents' 375. Throw Jason Leonard off the bench and into the red-rose equation, and the challengers were armed with an infantry so battle-hardened and lavishly decorated that they might have taken the field straight from the pages of Herodotus. The holders were close to bridging this chasm, but without an Eales or a Horan to guide them, they finished 20 seconds short.

As ever on the really intense occasion, the least learned of the combatants were exposed in the full glare of their ignorance. Al Baxter, the new Wallaby tight-head prop, was comprehensively dismantled by the aggressive Trevor Woodman - "ripped up for arse-paper", as one of the England players colourfully put it - and would have been in even deeper trouble at the set-piece but for some scandalously one-sided refereeing by Andre Watson, aided and abetted by the determinedly anti-scrummaging official from New Zealand, Paul Honiss. David Lyons, a mere boy in back-row terms, was substituted early after taking the brunt of Lawrence Dallaglio's fully developed sense of destiny.

And then there were the rugby league converts, Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers. Sailor made a hash of things from first minute to last - or at least, from first minute to the 73rd, when the Wallaby management spared him further humiliation - while Rogers made a hash of things at the death, which was just about the worst time he could have chosen. Elton Flatley's second match-saving penalty goal at the fag-end of extra time had just squared the argument at 17-all when Wilkinson restarted with a long drop into the Australian 22. Rogers had two options: either to run the ball out or return it from whence it came by banging it straight down the middle of the park. Instead, he went for a short touch-finder, thereby presenting England with the attacking platform they craved.

"That," admitted Woodward's second-in-command, Andy Robinson, who boasts an unblemished record of success in finals as both player and coach, "was a surprise to most of us. I still can't understand why he did it. With seconds left on the clock, why give us a line-out within drop-goal range?" Johnson, shrewd as you like when rugby is reduced to its basic components of possession, position and pressure, was not surprised, for he could see the panic in Wallaby eyes - a panic born of desperation to get to the end of extra time on level terms and trust to luck in a sudden-death scenario. "We'd called the long restart assuming they'd go for touch," he said. "Once we'd rumbled the ball upfield, who else would you want to see standing behind you, waiting to drop a goal to win a trophy?"

Wilkinson, equally adept with either foot, planted himself on his left leg and swung his right smoothly through the arc, hitting the sweet-spot with a minimum of fuss and bother. Those Wallabies who had resisted most manfully - George Smith and George Gregan, the supremely inventive Stephen Larkham and the rugged Flatley - knew then that their moment had passed, that the Webb Ellis Cup would be leaving their shores on a flight bound for Heathrow. Larkham and Flatley, in particular, were devastated.

By any intelligent assessment of their respective merits in managing the game from the outside-half position, Larkham did a number on Wilkinson. He did not flow through the English defence like water through rocks, as he had against the All Black tacklers the previous weekend, but he created a silk purse from the sow's ear of a beaten pack with another subtle demonstration of the art of passing a rugby ball. He also created the opening try for Lote Tuqiri, the best of Australia's cross-coders, by hanging an exquisite kick over the left flag after seven minutes.

Damagingly for the Wallabies, Larkham required repeated attention to a nasty gash running from mouth to chin - somehow, his face came into contact with the boot of Ben Cohen - and spent a total of 24 minutes off the field. Flatley, on the other hand, stayed for the duration and produced as nerveless a kicking performance as any witnessed in a World Cup final. Will Greenwood, the England centre, once celebrated a match-winning conversion by Matt Dawson by crediting the scrum-half with "balls as big as a house". When Flatley landed his two killer penalties, he was in Versailles Palace territory.

Totally dominant at the sharp end, England had repaired the damage caused by Tuqiri by earning Wilkinson three kickable penalties and then manufacturing a sucker-punch try for Jason Robinson, who took advantage of an intelligent run from Dallaglio off a scruffy line-out to slide in at the left corner before the interval. Yet by the 62nd minute, Flatley had reduced the deficit to three points, and when Woodman was penalised for not engaging at the final scrum of normal time, he succeeded with a wickedly testing penalty from right field with 10 seconds left on the stadium clock - a clock that was cruelly positioned in his line of sight and screaming the word "fear" at him.

Blessed with a greater range than his rival, Wilkinson replied with a 50-metre bazooka in the second minute of the extra 20. Again, Flatley cancelled it out almost on the whistle after Dallaglio had slipped one of his bear-like paws into a ruck. It was staggering theatre - unnerving and neurotic, almost painfully captivating - and had Wilkinson not dropped his goal, the record crowd of 82,000 would have been subjected to another helping of emotional torment.

But he did drop his goal, inevitably, and the torment duly subsided. "It's been a great tournament; now I just want to go home," an exhausted Woodward said afterwards. Wilkinson also has a home to go to, always assuming he can reach the door through the massed ranks of people who suddenly want a piece of him.

AUSTRALIA: M Rogers (New South Wales); W Sailor (Queensland), S Mortlock (ACT), E Flatley (Queensland), L Tuqiri (New South Wales); S Larkham (ACT), G Gregan (ACT, capt); W Young (ACT), B Cannon (New South Wales), A Baxter (New South Wales), J Harrison (New South Wales), N Sharpe (Queensland), G Smith (ACT), P Waugh (New South Wales), D Lyons (New South Wales).

Replacements: M Giteau (ACT) for Larkham, 22-28, 55-65 and 86-94; D Giffin (ACT) for Sharpe 48; J Paul (ACT) for Cannon, 57; M Cockbain (Queensland) for Lyons, 57; J Roff (ACT) for Sailor, 73; M Dunning (New South Wales) for Young, 93.

ENGLAND: J Lewsey (Wasps); J Robinson (Sale), M Tindall (Bath), W Greenwood (Harlequins), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: M Catt (Bath) for Tindall, 80; J Leonard (Harlequins) for Vickery, 81; I Balshaw (Bath) for Lewsey, 86; L Moody (Leicester) for Hill, 94.

Referee: A Watson (South Africa).

MINUTE-BY-MINUTE HOW THE FINAL WAS WON AND LOST

6th min: Aus 5 Eng 0: Trevor Woodman's stray right fist at a ruck is spotted by touch judge; two set-pieces later Stephen Larkham's pinpoint up-and-under pits 6ft 3in Lote Tuqiri against 5ft 8in Jason Robinson. No contest, try. Elton Flatley's touchline conversion attempt rattles upright.

12th min: Aus 5 Eng 3: David Lyons goes over the top at a ruck and from 47m out, albeit straight in front, Jonny Wilkinson puts England on the board.

19th min: Aus 5 Eng 6: Larkham tackles Ben Cohen off the ball. Sometimes the referee penalises these, sometimes he doesn't (to wit Josh Lewsey against South Africa in Perth). Wilkinson puts England into the lead; they are never behind again.

23rd min: Aus 5 Eng 6: Wilkinson misses a long-range left-footed drop goal attempt. Boos from the crowd, but the tone is set.

25th min: Aus 5 Eng 6: Wonder if Ben Kay heard George Gregan say, "You've just dropped the World Cup". Matt Giteau spills the ball in a Wilkinson tackle and, from 2m out, Kay needs only to catch the ball and fall over. He can't. Burning effigies are prepared.

28th min: Aus 5 Eng 9: Penalty England. Wilkinson stretches that precious lead from a narrow angle. The omens look good.

28th min: Aus 5 Eng 9: Flatley misses a penalty from the 10m line.

38th min: Aus 5 Eng 14: Lawrence Dallaglio joins the line and the green-and-gold bodies bounce off his huge frame. An offload to Wilkinson, who draws his man and puts Robinson in at the corner flag. Wilkinson is unable to add the extra points.

47th min: Aus 8 Eng 14: Hooker Steve Thompson throws long at a line-out and from the ensuing mess, the Wallabies earn a penalty. Flatley steps up and slots it.

53rd min: Aus 8 Eng 14: Illegal crossing by Matt Dawson and Josh Lewsey gives Flatley a shot. It drops inches under the bar.

61st min: Aus 11 Eng 14: Another elementary England mistake, this time Phil Vickery's foolish transgression on the floor, gives Flatley yet another chance to reduce the gap. He does and heartbeats quicken.

65th min: Aus 11 Eng 14: Larkham, bleeding from a deep cut on the mouth which sees him go off three times for running repairs, breaks the line... only for Wilkinson to grab him down by the shorts.

68th min: Aus 11 Eng 14: Wayne Bridge, are you watching? Mat Rogers perfects a sliding left-foot tackle to deny Will Greenwood a certain match-winning try.

72nd min: Aus 11 Eng 14: Wilkinson tries a drop, but pulls it wide under pressure.

80th min: Aus 14 Eng 14: Uh oh. Referee Andre Watson talks to both front rows about a dropped scrum inside the England 22. He goes round the other side, the scrum collapses again, penalty Australia. Pressure? No, mate - Flatley's kick signals extra time.

82nd min: Aus 14 Eng 17: Did a whole half really fly past without an English point? 44 minutes, to be precise, but a Wilkinson penalty creeps over. 90th min: Aus 14 Eng 17: Mike Catt goes for the drop and it's charged down. Now Wilkinson tries one. Again he misses.

95th min: Aus 14 Eng 17: Ball worked out to the right and Tuqiri pins back his ears and heads for the chalk. Combination of Robinson and Cohen bundle him out.

97th min: Aus 17 Eng 17: Battered bodies lie over the turf, but Dallaglio's hands are in a ruck and the Wallabies have a penalty 30m out. Flatley's nerves again pass the test. Sudden-death drop goals beckon.

100th min: Aus 17 Eng 20: "Give it to Jonny", 48 million English voices scream as England's pack drive deep into the Australian 22. Dawson does just that, and Jonny's right-footed drop splits the posts. The rest will be hysteria for years to come.

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