RUGBY WORLD CUP 2003

England, in pretty much any sport, don’t do easy. Heroic failure or unworthy, messy victory – these are the preserves of English teams.

But every once in a while it all comes together and England’s glory is, well, glorious.

So it was at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

England, under the inspired leadership of skipper Martin Johnson, went into the tournament in Australia as favourites. And the mantle of favourites never sits well on English shoulders.

Aussie try

Tuqiri beats Robsinon to the ball – and the try line

Their run to the final was tough: South Africa in the group stages and Wales and France in the knock-out games. Only a game with the All Blacks would have made their tournament  tougher.

And in the final they had to play Australia.

The hosts had the crowd and momentum on their side – their 22-10 defeat of New Zealand in the semi-final was the Wallabies’ 12th consecutive World Cup victory – and England’s dominant pack had the added obstacle of referee Andre Watson taking a dim view of their scrummaging technique throughout most of what became an epic contest at Sydney’s Telstra Stadium.

At least the match was played in decidedly northern hemisphere conditions – wet and cool – and in Jonny Wilkinson England had the tournament’s highest points scorer.

But it was the hosts who struck first when Lote Tuqiri outjumped his opposite number Jason Robinson to collect a cross-field kick and score in the corner.

Wilkinson then kicked three penalties as England began exerting real control up front before Robinson capped a flowing move involving both forwards and backs to slide into the corner and give the visitors a 14-5 half-time lead.

Robsinon try

Robinson goes over to give England a 14-5 lead

And that should have been that. After the break, England dominated possession but Wilkinson missed a number of drop goals that would have turned that dominance into cold, hard points.

The Aussies hung in there, the referee started penalising the English for a variety of misdemeanours and, with just seconds to go, Elton Flatley kicked his third penalty of the half to bring the scores level and send the final into extra time.

A Wilkinson penalty was the only score of the first ten-minute period of overtime and England held onto that lead for all but three minutes of extra time.

But when Flatley levelled things up again with a 97th minute penalty, even the most optimistic of England fans – a rare beast at the best of times – could have been forgiven for thinking that maybe it was not meant to be.

England had been the better team and they’d created plenty of chances to confirm that superiority – as well as the Wilkinson drop goal misses, lock Ben Kay had contrived to drop the ball when the try line was his for the taking – but the Aussies had been heroic in defence, in the line-out and in sheer bloody minded determination.

England had blown two leads. They were away from home. They were from the northern hemisphere and no team from there had ever won the World Cup.

They had three minutes to put it all right.

Wilko drop

Up and over – Wilkinson saves the best until last

The pack held the key, securing possession and driving forwards. Sometimes they gained inches, sometimes yards. But with seconds left on the clock, those hard, hard yards had brought the Aussie line into range for Wilkinson to try one last drop goal.

Back came the ball to the left-footed fly-half…on his right foot. He swung his boot through the ball and over that ball went, sailing through the middle of the posts.

20-17 to England. The players unable to contain their delight. Even the wildly under-stated Wilknson knew that what he’d done was enough, was historic, was glorious.

Seconds later, the match was over and the celebrations could begin for real.

An England team had finally won a World Cup again. On the turf of one of their fiercest rivals. Thanks to a last-gasp winner.

It really doesn’t get much better than that.

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