Holders fail to capitalise on Flatley's heroics

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson, not surprisingly, last night won the International Rugby Board Player of the Year Award. The 24-year-old stand-off from Newcastle, again not surprisingly, finished as the leading points scorer in the World Cup with 113, 10 ahead of Frédéric Michalak of France and 13 ahead of Elton Flatley, of Australia.

In six matches Wilkinson kicked 23 penalties, 10 conversions and eight drop goals which was seven more than anybody else. England, at the receiving end of a barrage of drop goals when they were knocked out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals by South Africa in Paris four years ago, might have decided that when push came to shove and shove came to nothing, then the drop goal option was preferable.

Wilkinson missed a drop goal in the 23rd minute, missed another in the 72nd minute, Mike Catt failed with a drop goal attempt in the ninth minute of extra time and Wilkinson missed a drop goal, also in extra time, before anointing the golden boot with a drop goal that won England the World Cup in the 100th minute.

Australia never attempted a drop goal throughout the entire extended match even though Stephen Larkham was the stand-off that produced a stunning, long range drop goal that broke the deadlock in the semi-final against South Africa at Twickenham in the last World Cup. The Australians, with an impregnable defence, went on to beat France in the final in Cardiff four years ago. The Maginot line, or any line, cannot defend against drop goals, which, in Wilkinson's case, can be delivered by either foot.

Larkham might have been in a position to attempt a drop goal against England had he been on the field for any serious length of time. He kept appearing and disappearing after taking a boot in the mouth, for which he was penalised.

For Australia it was up to Flatley to provide a suitable response to Wilkinson and, under incredible pressure, he delivered. What a comeback.

Last June against Wales he didn't kick very well but didn't really have to as Australia won without a huge amount of difficulty. Flatley then spent a night on the town in Sydney with friends, slept in, and missed the team meeting the following morning.

Eddie Jones, the Australia coach, sent him on a plane back home to Brisbane as the Wallabies travelled to Melbourne for a Test with England which the hosts lost 25-14.

"I watched that match at home and I was very disappointed I wasn't there,'' Flatley said. "I wasn't sure what the future would hold. You live and learn by your mistakes and you get on with life. It makes you a stronger character. I don't look back and say that was a turning point but it was definitely something I didn't want to go back to again.''

Three weeks after the punishment, Flatley was recalled to the squad. "There's been a remarkable change from Flats,'' Jones said. "He was put in a situation where he was expelled from the team but I think it made him realise how much he wanted to play for Australia and he's worked really hard.

"He's one of those guys who came into provincial rugby at an early age and was probably a little bit comfortable in that reserve spot. He dealt with the issues and has fought his way back. He's now vice-captain of the side and I think what happened made him see how much more he could develop as a player. It's been a great achievement.''

Prior to Saturday's epic final, Flatley had landed 33 goal kicks out of 40. His conversion of Lote Tuqiri's opening try in the final struck the left upright and then he missed a penalty in the 31st minute. He hit the target in the 48th to make it 14-8, just missed with a long range effort that fell under the bar in the 54th minute and struck again in the 61st. The match was in the last minute when England were penalised at a scrum and, from an acute angle, Flatley landed the goal to level the scores at 14-14.

After Wilkinson had kicked his fourth penalty in the second minute of extra time, Australia's chance of retaining the cup came in the 99th minute and again Flatley kicked the goal to make it 17-17.

He had kicked two penalties in the final minutes of a cup final in normal, and then extra time, only to see Wilkinson's drop goal delivered with seconds to spare. No wonder Flatley could not look the England stand-off in the eye at the end.

Eddie Jones, asked if he would like to see the value of drop goals reduced, said: "I'd prefer to see them worth one point. That's obviously a biased, bad loser attitude.''

Referring to Wilkinson's match winner, Jones said: "I knew that fella was going to try the field goal. You could see him edging back and back.

"Was it inevitable? Maybe not if we could have made a big tackle before but he's an exceptional player.''

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