'Jonny's kick was in slow motion. It took its time. I just wanted to start celebrating'

England's World Cup meeting with Australia tomorrow promises to be the latest in a series of titanic struggles between the two nations. Paul Newman speaks to five men who have tackled the Wallabies
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Mike Burton (Prop)

Australia 30 England 21, Brisbane, 31 May 1975

The "Battle of Ballymore" was probably the most violent game in England history. Burton became the first England player to be sent off following a late tackle on Doug Osborne after only three minutes.

"There had been a couple of flare-ups in the first Test at Sydney and the Australians laid into us from the start. My reaction was: 'I'll handle this.'

Fran Cotton was injured, which left us without a big pack, and I took it upon myself to look after the others. I knew I had a reputation in English rugby. I was a Gloucester bloke and the Gloucester pack of the 1970s knew how to handle themselves.

I got to a line-out and thought: 'Here, have some of this.' I steamed into one of their props and got a warning. The referee, Bob Burnett, a local Queenslander, said it was an accidental clash of heads. He was actually quite courteous about it.

From the penalty they had a shot at goal and missed. Alan Old dropped out. When I tackled the other guy he went down with a whack. The referee said it was a late tackle and sent me off. I couldn't believe it. I knew it was late, but it wasn't as though I'd kicked or stamped on anybody. Billy Beaumont had never played prop but went to tight head in a seven-man pack. We still ran them close and I'm sure we'd have won with a full team. I didn't watch the rest of the game and never saw a video until years later. I wanted to disassociate myself from the match.

I was inconsolable in the dressing room. Bob Templeton, the former Australian coach, came in and said: 'Listen, mate, you should get out of here. The journalists will be round you at half-time.' He took me to a nearby pub and sat me down with a jug of beer. When the fans started arriving after the match we went back to the stadium. I met the referee that night and he didn't seem too bothered about it all. To him I was just a Pom who'd been sent off.

I never complained and never felt bitter about it. I always got on fine with the Australian team and I have some good mates over there, though they always seem to show the incident again on TV when England go on tour and say: 'What about this?'

John Pullin, our captain, was very understanding. He knew what had happened. I felt disappointed rather than ashamed because it stopped me doing what I loved, which was playing."

Mike Burton, 61, runs his own business specialising in sports travel and corporate hospitality

Gareth Chilcott (Prop)

England 3 Australia 19, Twickenham, 3 Nov 1984

Andrew Slack's Wallabies were one of the greatest teams in rugby history and destroyed an inexperienced England. Chilcott, a new cap, was lucky not to be sent off after punching Nick Farr-Jones in open play.

"If there had been a World Cup then Australia would have won. Not only did they do the Grand Slam but they also won every other match on that tour, apart from a draw against the South West Division. They blitzed everybody else.

In those days the home nations all played a very similar type of rugby, kicking into corners, winning line-outs, driving forward – not too dissimilar to the way England play now, sadly. It was a very physical game, without much adventure.

Australia had a big scrummaging pack and a huge line-out and could match anybody physically, but there was much more to them than that. They had a very mobile ball-winning back row, were well disciplined and didn't give anything away. Simon Poidevin in their back row lived offside but never quite gave away penalties. They soaked up everything.

They always tried to keep the ball alive and had wonderful backs, like David Campese and Michael Lynagh. Farr-Jones and Mark Ella were one of the all-time great half-back pairings. It was the first time we'd seen a fly-half playing on the gain line and Ella changed the way people thought about the game.

We had several new caps, including myself and the captain, Nigel Melville. It was early in our season and we hadn't had a Five Nations. Ten minutes in we were wondering: 'Where are we going to get our points from?' We knew they would score at some stage, and they did. I felt frustrated. We weren't winning any ball and Farr-Jones was running the show, talking to referees as all good scrum halves do, driving his pack. I just went over the top and gave him a clout. It took him a year before he forgave me, but we're friends now. Rugby players don't hold too many grudges.

Luckily I didn't get sent off, but the RFU committee didn't pick me for a few games after that. The fact that I was sitting on my own at a little table facing the corner at the after-dinner banquet probably told me I was in trouble!"

Gareth Chilcott, 50, is corporate director of Gullivers Sports Travel

Richard Hill (Scrum-half)

England 6 Australia 12, Twickenham, 2 Nov 1991

England reached the final of the second World Cup thanks to the domination of their forwards but Geoff Cooke, the coach, decided to play a more expansive style against Australia. It proved a costly error.

"I think most people would agree, with hindsight, that changing tactics for the final wasn't the right decision. The forwards had been confident that they could take Australia on. We'd played a virtual 10-man game throughout the tournament and it had been very successful.

There was a huge amount of discussion about how we should play in the final. To a man the forwards were adamant that they wanted to take on Australia up front and not allow them to get their game going – which I suspect is the way England will play this weekend. They thought we should go directly through the heart of their defence rather than try to go round the outside of it.

The problem was there was not full agreement within the team. I know now as a coach that if your players are not agreed over how you should play sometimes little things in your game can break down.

But it was very close and we could still have won the game, even with that change of tactics. There was no move to change things around at half-time. That was the game we'd gone in with and if the captain decides to follow through the wishes of the coach you have to respect that. There was never a question of any dissent among the players.

We tried to find holes in the Australian defence by moving the ball out wide. The trouble was our backs hadn't had too much ball to play with throughout the tournament because of the way we'd played. They weren't as used to playing together as they would have been if we'd played that way earlier.

In the second half we thought we should have had a penalty at the very least when David Campese knocked down a pass to Rory Underwood, who had a clear run to the line. Campese got away with it. It had to be him, didn't it?

It was very disappointing to lose, but it was a brilliant tournament. Rugby really took off in a way I'd never experienced. The whole country seemed to be behind us as we built our momentum. And considering the Australians had hammered us by 40 points in the summer I think we did pretty well to run them as close as we did."

Richard Hill, 46, is head coach of Bristol Rugby

Tony Underwood (Winger)

England 25 Australia 22, Cape Town, 11 June 1995

Neither side had shone in the group stages of the World Cup but they served up a thriller in the quarter-finals. Underwood scored England's only try before Rob Andrew secured victory with a late drop goal.

"These days northern and southern hemisphere countries meet regularly, but we hadn't played Australia since they beat us in the 1991 final. They were probably the favourites, but we were Grand Slam champions. It was a very hard match physically: not a major spectacle in terms of running rugby, but a very tense and nervous occasion.

Our try came when we turned the ball over and it was fed down the line. Will Carling actually passed to me! I ran with the ball from inside our half and it turned into a straight race between myself and Damian Smith. Like all sprinters, I just tried to keep my form. I was usually OK for 50 metres, but the last 20 wouldn't have been the prettiest action. I just made it.

Their only try came after a box kick over my head towards Mike Catt. I didn't jump because I heard Catty's call, but I did wonder whether I should have gone for it. I tried to shield Catty, but Damian Smith jumped over my back and caught the ball ahead of him.

Australia then had the momentum, but Rob Andrew matched Michael Lynagh kick for kick and at 22-22 we set up the chance for Rob's drop goal. I could see straight away that the kick was on line. It never wavered. It was just a question of whether it had the legs. It was a moment to hold your breath. In pre-professional days we weren't nearly as fit as the guys are now and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought: 'Thank God for that.' I didn't want extra time.

Our celebrations went on for days. I'm not kidding. We were in Sun City. It was great, but I'm not sure it was the right place to prepare for a semi-final against New Zealand. We needed rest and recuperation, but one or two people took it a bit further than that.

The All Blacks destroyed us. I sensed that some people were happy just to have beaten Australia, but I felt that our expectations weren't as high as they should have been."

Tony Underwood, 38, lives in France and is a long-haul pilot with Virgin Atlantic Airways

Trevor Woodman (Prop)

England 20 Australia 17, Sydney, 22 Nov 2003

England's memorable victory in the World Cup final was almost scuppered by referee Andre Watson's idiosyncratic interpretation of the rules of scrummaging, with Woodman, a prop forward, repeatedly penalised.

"We were leading 14-11 with only seconds remaining when Australia were awarded a penalty. I was penalised for not engaging properly at the scrum. I willed Elton Flatley to miss, but he'd been kicking well all day. That was a pressure kick if ever there was one and fair play to him when he put it over.

I felt a lot of frustration and started thinking: 'Are they going to take me off?' I'd given away a few free-kicks. But Phil Vickery went off, Jason Leonard replaced him and I stayed until the end. Did it cross my mind that I might just have cost us the World Cup? It probably did, but you just have to concentrate on the task in hand.

People had called us Dad's Army, but we knew fitness wouldn't be an issue in extra time. In all my life in rugby I'd never been involved in such a professional set-up.

You saw that professionalism in our preparations. The atmosphere in the build-up was very relaxed. There was a lot of video analysis and it was a question of everyone focusing on their own tasks and trying not to let the occasion get to them. I felt more nervous 24 hours before than on the day. Of course you have a few butterflies, but I'd had plenty of experience ensuring I didn't suffer pre-match nerves.

The plan was to attack their forwards from the start. We sensed that was their weakness. They scored first and although it pretty much went our way for the next 30 minutes it was a relief when Jason Robinson went over. We could easily have been further in front, but a few refereeing decisions went against us and we just couldn't get points on the board.

Jonno [Martin Johnson] made all the right calls to set things up for Jonny Wilkinson's winning drop goal in extra time. You practice things like that throughout your career, but it takes special players and special characters to carry it out in situations like that.

Jonny's kick was almost in slow motion. He struck it sweetly but it didn't fire through the posts. It took its time. At the end I felt relief more than anything. We'd done what we'd set out to achieve. I just wanted to get off the field and start celebrating."

Trevor Woodman, 31, retired two years ago because of injury and is now a rugby coach at Sydney University