Jonny Wilkinson, the deliverer of England's latest World Cup semi-final victory over the French if not its principal architect, has spent much of this tournament insisting he is not the goal-kicking obsessive of old. He is unlikely to be believed, now or ever. As Saturday's contest reached one of its many crisis points – the hosts were 9-5 up and looking dangerous, the holders were calculating the odds of their stellar marksman converting a hard-earned penalty opportunity from a challenging position towards the left touchline – Wilkinson rejected the first ball thrown to him on the grounds that it was a rogue model.
It was nothing short of astonishing, the equivalent of a first violinist noticing that the conductor's baton is an inch shorter than usual. "Jonny was pretty vigilant," said his old mentor, Rob Andrew, yesterday. "Training balls can lose pressure and shape over weeks of constant use. The match balls are marked and numbered from one to six: the ones used on Saturday also had "semi-final" and the date written on them. Having been alert to the situation, he was right to insist on having a match ball to kick."
Together with Daniel Carter, the New Zealand outside-half, Wilkinson has been prominent in voicing concerns about the flight of some of the Gilbert-manufactured "Synergie" balls chosen for this competition. There has been little clarity in the arguments put forward by the two goal-kickers – indeed, their claims were rejected out of hand by both the company and World Cup officials after a series of mid-tournament tests – and some kickers, notably Chris Paterson of Scotland, had precious few problems in bisecting the posts. Perhaps for that reason, Wilkinson drew back from any open criticism of the product when questioned on the issue last week.
However, he did manage to persuade the World Cup organisers to make all six semi-final balls available to both teams for kicking practice at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis last Thursday. Usually, the kickers have access to only two such balls. Wilkinson said he was far happier with his preparation for the game as a result of this small but significant coup.
Yesterday, it transpired that another training ball had been thrown to Wilkinson as he lined up a kick during the quarter-final victory over Australia in Marseilles. On that occasion he did not spot the difference, went ahead with the kick and missed. The incident came to light when he viewed a tape of the game. Andrew, the elite rugby director at Twickenham and a former England kicker himself, was, and remains, less than happy. "We're not accusing anyone of anything, but we have to get this right," he said.
Wilkinson, down around the 60 per cent mark with his place-kicking in this tournament, still managed a nine-point haul in Saturday's low-scoring contest. "I've had my fair share of things not going my way," he said, "but every time I miss a kick, the guys go and get me another opportunity. With people like these around me, you can't get disheartened."
He was more interested in discussing the transformation in England's all-round performance since the embarrassing 36-0 defeat by the Springboks in the second round of pool matches. "We met together after that match and everyone decided to go again," he said. "Despite the hurt, despite the pain, despite the criticism, everyone decided to get up and get on with it. We knew if we could keep our guts and determination, we could give it a shot. Since the competition started, we've thought we could win if only we could perform at the right times."
History there for the making
England will make history as the first side to successfully defend their title if they win the World Cup final on Saturday night. They already share, with Australia, the distinction of reaching two finals in a row, and three in all
How the champions have fared
1991 New Zealand reached the semi-finals, where they lost 16-6 to Australia. Beat Scotland for third place
Winners Australia (beat England 12-6)
1995 Australia were beaten 25-22 by England in the quarter-finals
Winners South Africa (beat New Zealand 15-12)
1999 South Africa were beaten 27-21 by Australia, in extra-time, in the semi-finals. Beat New Zealand for third place
Winners Australia (beat France 35-12)
2003 Australia reached the final, where they lost 20-17, in extra-time, to EnglandReuse content