We knew it would be close, but not this close. With 25 seconds remaining Jonny Wilkinson dropped a goal and the Webb Ellis Cup, named after the Rugby schoolboy who picked up a football, was heading home.
England's triumph, in extra time, was sweeter than the song adopted by the Red Rose Army - "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". A choir of about 40,000 were filling the Sydney air with the anthem last night after England won a compelling final, a classic to match, in terms of history, the achievement of the country's football team in winning the World Cup in extra time against West Germany at Wembley Stadium in 1966. For Alf Ramsey read Clive Woodward, for Bobby Moore read Martin Johnson, for Geoff Hurst read Wilkinson.
"I feel ecstatic for every single person with a white shirt,'' Woodward said after his team's extraordinary victory over the defending champions, Australia. "It makes you feel proud to be English. We made many errors, but we won. We won the cup, so that's it. It was massive. I am absolutely speechless. It was just fantastic, unbelievable. The whole team were brilliant. It was an awesome night."
England, ranked No 1 in the world going into this tournament, lost in the final to Australia at Twickenham in 1991, when Woodward was no closer to coaching the national side than I was, and were knocked out in the quarter-finals by South Africa four long years ago, when Jannie de Beer dropped five goals in Paris and a hapless Wilkinson was replaced.
Wilkinson could not quite match De Beer's feat yesterday, but once again the 24-year-old stand-off from Newcastle was England's saviour and match winner, kicking four penalties and, of course, the drop goal that made England not only the champions of the world but the first country from the northern hemisphere to win the cup. Redemption is sweet indeed.
"We knew we had to hang in there," Wilkinson said, adding, without a touch of irony, "I didn't want the game to go to a drop-goal competition. I just wanted to win so much for the other guys. It was frustrating to see a couple of drop-goal attempts go wide and in the end I just had to make sure the ball hit my foot. In every game we've put ourselves on the line. I've got no voice left. It's what we have fought for for so long. I want to hold on to this moment for as long as possible. Australia's pressure in defence was fantastic. It was a long game wasn't it? In my dreams last night it wasn't that long.''
What made the contest all the more absorbing was that England, who led 14-5 at the break, appeared to be in control. However the weather was dreadful and as the rain descended on Telstra Stadium mistakes began to creep into England's game, and as they did so Elton Flatley, the Australian centre, kicked his side back into it. Indeed, he began to look almost Wilkinsonesque as he landed penalties in the 48th, 61st and 80th minutes, the last struck with what was the final kick in normal time, although there had been nothing normal about it. The kick levelled the scores at 14-14, which meant 10 minutes each way of extra time for players already beginning to look out on their feet.
Before a World Cup record crowd of nearly 83,000 Australia struck gold early on, Stephen Larkham putting up an accurate high ball to the left corner, where Lote Tuqiri rose above Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey to touch down.
Flatley's conversion attempt rebounded off a post. As the drama unfolded that lick of paint began to look as wide as the English Channel. England, gaining superiority at line-out and scrum, took charge for most of the rest of the first half as Larkham, as influential to Australia as Wilkinson is to England, departed the battlefield not once but three times with an injury to his mouth.
When the unfortunate stand-off was penalised in the 20th minute his opposite number kicked the penalty and England had the lead, and although later, much later, they were dragged back, they were never headed.
After Ben Kay - what a relieved man he is - had knocked on a try-scoring pass, England struck with a deadly efficiency in the 38th minute. Lawrence Dallaglio, outstanding in the back row, made a terrific transfer to Wilkinson who found Robinson on his left and there was no stopping the wing, who was in full flight. It was reminiscent of his try for the Lions against the Wallabies in the First Test in Brisbane two years ago - except this was covered in the flag of St George.
Australia, bidding to become the first country to win the World Cup back-to-back, were as bloody-minded as England and their second-half fightback meant the players would compete for 100 minutes instead of 80.
After Wilkinson, in the second minute of extra time, had kicked England back into the lead, Flatley again responded with a penalty in the 99th minute to make it 17-17 and almost certainly set up a sudden death play-off. And then Wilkinson swung his right foot and the rest, as they say, is hysteria.
"He's outstanding under pressure,'' George Gregan, the Australian captain and scrum-half, said of Wilkinson. "He missed a few early in the match, but he knocked over the one that counted and you've got to take your hat off to him for that. It was a massive final wasn't it? Two world-class teams going at it hammer and tongs into extra time. Congratulations must be extended to England. They delivered under pressure and they delivered when it counted.''
England, and their captain Johnson, thoroughly deserved this famous victory, for which they have been planning for four years, ever since that shattering defeat to the Springboks, then the defending champions, in France.
"I'm just happy for the players because they put so much into it,'' Johnson said. "They put their heart and sole into this campaign. We were frustrated in the second half, but we have got to give credit to Australia. They are a very good team, with very good footballers. With 20 minutes of extra time it could have gone any way. It couldn't have been any closer and I'm just happy to be on the right side.'' And he and England were extremely happy that Jonny Wilkinson was on the right side. And on his right foot.
Dallaglio, who had had a relatively quiet World Cup prior to his excellent display yesterday, said: "They called us Dad's Army and I think we proved something. I'm sure back home they are going absolutely berserk.'' There was something very similar happening in Sydney. "We've taken the moral high ground," Dallaglio added. "To come here and take the trophy from the southern hemisphere is absolutely fantastic.''
Australia: M Rogers; W Sailor (J Roff, 70), S Mortlock, E Flatley, L Tuqiri; S Larkham, G Gregan (capt); B Young (M Dunning, 93), B Cannon (J Paul, 57), A Baxter, J Harrison, N Sharpe (D Giffin, 48), G Smith, D Lyons (M Cockbain, 57), P Waugh.
England: J Lewsey (I Balshaw, 84); J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall (M Catt, 79), B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; T Woodman, S Thompson, P Vickery (J Leonard, 80), M Johnson (capt), B Kay, R Hill (L Moody, 94), L Dallaglio, N Back.
Referee: A Watson (South Africa).Reuse content