Nerveless Flatley relishes his chance to kick over the traces of a final let-down

Paul Newman talks to the World Cup kicker who returns to Australia's starting XV against England tomorrow
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The Independent Online

The 2003 Rugby World Cup final is in the balance and the fate of your team rests at your feet. Your face, a picture of concentration, fills the big screens around the Sydney ground and television sets around the world. As the Telstra Stadium falls silent, more than 80,000 people, not to mention the millions watching at home, have eyes for you alone.

If you thought Jonny Wilkinson had nerves of titanium, imagine what it must have been like to be Elton Flatley, kicker for the world's most competitive and demanding sporting nation. Australia were trailing 14-11 in last November's final when Flatley kept his country in the game with a penalty, the last kick of normal time. Twenty minutes later, Wilkinson having kicked England back into the lead, Flatley had to do it all again, levelling the scores at 17-17 in the 99th of the 100 minutes allowed for the match.

Wilkinson's drop goal moments later - just 25 seconds from the end of extra time - brought a tumultuous match to a dramatic conclusion. It was a devastating blow for Australia, the hosts and reigning champions, but at least Flatley knew his nerve had held. In normal circumstances neither kick would have been regarded as difficult, but in the maelstrom of a World Cup final both were eminently missable.

Flatley, who has a chance to put the disappointment of Sydney behind him when he lines up for his country against England at Twickenham tomorrow, is a typically matter-of-fact Australian sportsman, but when he recalls his toughest moment he remembers the tension all too clearly.

"Neither of them were the hardest kicks in terms of where they were on the park, but they still had to go over," he said. "Let's put it this way: I was a lot happier that I got them rather than missed them.

"I was pretty nervous for the first one. When I was putting the ball on the tee a few 'what ifs' went through my mind. 'What if I miss this?' But that's where you go into your goal-kicking mode. You try to have a clear head and just think about what you usually do when you kick. I felt very confident and comfortable with the second one.

"It's pretty impossible to get everything out of your mind. You go back to your provens and your cues when you kick. That's when your technique holds up under pressure. That's why you go out there and practise and do all the hard yards of training for those big pressure kicks."

Flatley, who will wear the No 10 shirt tomorrow in the absence of the injured Stephen Larkham, wrote a letter of congratulations to Wilkinson after the final and retains the greatest respect for him. He has watched with interest as Charlie Hodgson has stepped impressively into his boots as England have beaten Canada and South Africa in the last fortnight, but expresses surprise at any suggestion that the hero of Sydney might struggle to win his place back when fit again.

"Charlie would have to play a few more Test matches consistently and win a few games for England before you could put him in ahead of Jonny Wilkinson," Flatley said. "He's obviously playing well, but it's a question of consistency over a period of time. Jonny's definitely got those runs on the board."

He added: "We haven't seen a lot of Charlie, but I thought he played really well at the weekend. Our team respect him as an international player. He brings a running game to the team. He's obviously a pretty good runner and he scored a really good individual try. He directs traffic pretty well. As to what he brings to the team, I think you'd have to make that judgement after a few more Test matches."

There was a hint of where Australia believe they might exploit Hodgson's inexperience when Flatley considered whether defence was a weakness of his opposing No 10's game. "I'm sure that Charlie will have to make his fair share of tackles on Saturday," Flatley said. "I don't think he missed too many in the game against South Africa - he might have missed one or two. Overall I thought his defence wasn't too bad."

Flatley broke an arm playing for Queensland against Scotland earlier this year - he suffered the same injury against the same opponents three years ago - and as a consequence missed almost the entire domestic Australian season, including the 51-15 crushing of England in Brisbane in June. He managed one club game before leaving for the current tour, on which he has appeared as a replacement in all three matches so far.

While England have only four survivors from Sydney in their starting line-up tomorrow, Australia have 10. Flatley wins his chance after Larkham, Stirling Mortlock and Clyde Rathbone suffered injuries at Hampden Park last Saturday as Eddie Jones' team completed their second victory of the tour over Scotland. Between those two matches Australia lost to France in Paris.

"When you've been in the starting line-up you always want to get back there and it's frustrating to be on the bench, but you have to be realistic," Flatley said. "I haven't played a lot of football this year and the guy who's been in my position, Matty Giteau, has been playing some great rugby."

Flatley, aged 27, has played at both outside-half and inside centre, though his chances in the No 10 shirt have been limited by Larkham's continuing excellence. The rise of Giteau, who plays in the same two positions, could now block Flatley's progress, though he prefers to see the positives of such strength in depth. "Against Scotland I really enjoyed linking with Matty," he said. "He's a great bloke to play with and a good young talent. Maybe down the track he could be a long-term No 10 for Australia, but at the moment he's playing very good football at 12."

Twickenham has happy memories for Flatley, who made his debut there in 1997 and scored two tries in the 32-31 thriller which England edged two years ago. "Every footballer loves playing at Twickenham," Flatley said. "There's such a great atmosphere. The crowd really supports England well, but in such a good way that all the players on the field get inspired by it. The English have a special way of supporting their team. I think the crowds in Australia have changed a lot since the Lions tour in 2001. They showed Australian crowds how to support a team. Australian crowds have really got behind their team a lot since then."

Having missed the summer game in Brisbane, will tomorrow be a chance for Flatley to put behind him the pain of Sydney last November? Cue that classic Australian straight bat. "There will be a lot said about that, but in essence they're two different teams," Flatley said. "We've moved on. We're looking forwards, not backwards."