Gregan leads tributes to the champions

By Peter Bills
Sunday 23 November 2003 01:00

Losing to the English, especially in their own backyard, is about as appealing to Australians as bad shark-meat. So when the Wallabies' kicker, Elton Flatley, landed the 79th-minute penalty that sent the 2003 Rugby World Cup final into extra time, a dense cloud of hot air rose over Sydney's Telstra Stadium.

Global warming? No, the Australian fans gloating at England's possible demise in a cauldron of a match. But the hot air stayed for less than two minutes. Jonny Wilkinson's long-range penalty to restore England's lead, and then his last-gasp drop goal to win the Cup, finally ended Australia's marvellous, feisty display.

"Congratulations to the England team because they delivered under pressure when it counted, but I am so proud of our guys too," said the Wallaby captain, George Gregan. "They gutsed it out. We were 14-5 down but brought it back to extra-time. It was a massive final that went to extra-time and we had two world-class teams going at it hammer and tongs. To both Australia and England fans, it's the highlight of our careers, and thank you for such a wonderful night."

A World Cup classic for skill and invention? Never. It was too riddled with nerves, mistakes, wrong options and moments when collective brains went AWOL, especially in the England side. But a classic match in terms of a compelling spectacle? Absolutely. England were far and away the better side and richly deserved victory. But the Australians fought like only they can when the Poms are threatening to beat them. Their physical courage is taken as read, but it is mental strength which underpins so many of their sporting triumphs, and threatened to do so again here.

The turning point seemed to have come after 24 minutes, when England lock Ben Kay dropped a simple scoring pass a yard short of the Wallaby line. As it happened, you sensed an Australian comment to the distraught Kay along the lines of Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh's quip to a South African who dropped him in a vital World Cup cricket match: "Mate, you've just dropped the World Cup".

But Kay hadn't, and despite it all Australia's coach, Eddie Jones, paid a handsome tribute to the new World Champions. "It was outstanding rugby by England," he said. "They should be applauded as the best team in the world. They played those last minutes very well. They are a class outfit to win those close games. Champion sides win close games and that is what they have done." Gregan echoed his coach. "Despite all this talk about them being boring, they are very, very professional," he said. "They play to their strengths and that is why they are world champions. Hats off to them."

England somehow dragged themselves through the mental torment of needing extra-time when they should have killed off Australia much earlier. Captain Martin Johnson, an absolute colossus, said: "We needed to get six points to kill that game off but we couldn't do it. But the move leading to the drop goal which won the game was about the only bit of our play that went to plan in the second half. We then had Wilko in front of the sticks to win the World Cup, and you just wouldn't have anyone else there, would you?"

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