Wilkinson rallies troops again but now boot is on other foot

Brilliant flash of instinct for the try that never was shows that Jonny is still The Man in white
Click to follow

England's magnificent many thousands of supporters came here craving victory, and you sensed more than anything they craved it to be delivered by their golden boy. Or perhaps that was getting carried away with the hype. There was plenty of that before this final, much of it concentrating on the likelihood of a very tight contest and a possible repeat of Jonny Wilkinson's drop of glory from 2003. Not for the want of trying did Wilkinsonand England fall short.

Without any tries the kicking game was centre-stage, and every bus driver and barrister in Britain knows kicking means Wilkinson. He did his best, he did his bit. Trouble was that although he extended his all-time record for most points in World Cups, the leading scorer in this tournament happened to be South Africa's Percy Montgomery. Only a statistic, it's true, but it was reinforced in an agonising, eked-out World Cup final by the full-back's four penalties followed by one from Francois Steyn that made up the Springboks' five-card poker hand when all Wilkinson held was a pair of penalties.

Strange to think amid all the idolising of this past week – some of it within rugby, much of it from way beyond its boundaries – that Wilkinson previously endured so much doubt and detraction. In a world that craves consist-ency, that is what he routinely supplied by every criterion except the physiological one. The mind was willing, focused, even obsessed. The body could not stand the pace and the years 2004-06 were fallow Test-wise. There but for the grace of God... Actually Wilkinson revealed yesterday he delved into Buddhist philosophy to get through the bad times. David Beckham goes shopping. Each to his own.

Wilkinson came back in the Six Nations' Championship last February, and England beat Scotland, Italy and France at home. Here at the World Cup they had beaten Australia and France. Enough said? There is never enough said about Wilkinson. The Paris newspaper Le Figaro wrote yesterday of the "la blondeur fatale" – the deadly fairness (as in hair). CNN in Atlanta were raving about Jonny. The Sun ran a hideous mocked-up photo on its front page of the Queen's head on Jonny's body: "One is right behind you!" Madame Tussaud's waxwork of Wilkinson was placed on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.

All this seemed worryingly too much before the fact. Wilkinson – though Tussaud-esque in concentration for the national anthems – got to work quickly. In the first 10 minutes two bullet passes encouraged Mathew Tait to run. From the second, Tait shipped it on to Paul Sackey and England had a penalty on the South African 22. It was two metres from the right touchline, mind you, but out came the kicking tee. Close-up TV coverage has allowed us to add to that long-familiar preparatory crouch a new Wilko-ism: the calming flutter of his lower lip as he exhales before and after moments of exertion. With a few deep breaths he dispatched the kick for 3-3.

There were slamming tackles, too: an early one to stop Steyn dead, another late in the first half to cut down Bakkies Botha.

For the first 50 minutes until Toby Flood came on Wilkinson had his 36-year-old minder, Mike Catt, to do a lot of the positionalkicking out of hand. It was a tactic England deployed as often as they did in the semi-final defeat of France, which was very often. England's head coach, Brian Ashton, has always expressed a preference for a left- and right-footed combination, though of course Wilkinson provides both in one set of bespoke boots.

In the hectares of pre-match newsprint we learned from Mike Tindall, a team-mate in 2003, that Jonny has a secret word to call the drop goal move. But what is the word? Grease? The Sun probably got their lipreaders, used normally to trip up football managers, on it. Maybe the secret word is "drop"?

Whatever it is, Wilkinson called it three times in the 2003 final, and missed each one, before the money shot of the right-footed winner. Not so much hit-and-miss as miss-miss-miss... bingo! He was at it again here in the first quarter – missing, that is, from presentable range with South Africa in front at 6-3.

With every addition of three more points to one side or the other, the odds on extra time being revisited shortened. Those who believe only tries maketh the game probably called it the ordure of the boot, but it was gripping stuff.

Never more so than two minutes into the second half when Tait broke clear, Andy Gomarsall rushed in with a short-side pass and Wilkinson, brilliantly, instinctively, flipped the ball on to Mark Cueto.

A reminder that Wilkinson was not capped at 18 years old for his goal-kicking. The boy who became The Man can play. Those in English white were convinced Cueto's dive had brought the first try of the game but the TV match official thought otherwise.

Wilkinson had to keep his composure during the anxious seconds of waiting, knowing there was a penalty to come back for if it was no try. He put over the kick, a bittersweet three-point consolation, which made it 9-6 to South Africa.

The Boks just kept coming, winning too many of those forward collisions beyond even Wilkinson's control. The boot won it again, all right, but it was on the end of a Springbok hoof.