Rugby World Cup
Elton Flatley recalls epic 2003 final and Jonny Wilkinson's 'car crash' kick
Sam Bruce
September 22, 2015

Jonny Wilkinson's tournament-winning drop-goal in 2003 was recently voted the Rugby World Cup's greatest moment, but for Wallabies centre Elton Flatley it was just like a car crash.

"You could see it coming but you couldn't sort of stop it," Flatley told ESPN. "And you know with Jonny in that position he doesn't miss too much."

For those 80-odd fans thousand watching from the stands, and millions more on television across the globe, the sight of Wilkinson dropping into the pocket, receiving a pass from scrum-half Matt Dawson and splitting the posts with his less-favoured right boot has become the defining moment in Rugby World Cup history.

© Getty Images

And, as a consequence of that, the gripping nature of the 100-minute contest has largely been dumped as World Cup collateral damage, not unlike Will Carling and his part in the tournament's second most-memorable moment: Jonah Lomu's four-try stampede against England in the 1995 semi-final. But the 2003 decider doesn't deserve that billing; and neither does Flately - the Wallabies "ice man".

Having beaten Australia in four successive Tests, including a 25-14 triumph in Melbourne earlier in 2003, Clive Woodward's side were red-hot favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy; but it wasn't a belief the Wallabies were buying into, particularly after their shock semi-final win over New Zealand. Buoyed by that 12-point triumph, Flatley said there was a quiet confidence among the tournament hosts as they negotiated the pressures of an expectant nation.

"We were pretty excited; we were confident, not overconfident, but we had beaten the All Blacks," Flatley told ESPN. "We'd hit some form, we were a bit patchy before that; but we knew the Poms were always going to be very hard. They had a good team; they'd beaten us in Melbourne already that year, and they had a great forward pack. But we were in our own little bubble, there was obviously a lot of nerves; a World Cup final. We were excited and pretty confident we could do the job. So you're just in your cocoon doing everything you can possible so you can perform on Saturday."

As the game edged closer to kick-off, it became obvious the conditions were going to suit England, with mist and continuous rain across Sydney paving the way for a tight, forward-oriented battle. The rugby gods must have missed the delivery of the pre-match script, though, as Wallabies winger Lote Tuqiri touched down after just six minutes.

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"Their forward pack was very good and the conditions suited them: the drizzling rain," Flatley recalled. "So playing wide, expansive footy [wasn't an option], which we would have enjoyed more. So those conditions probably suited the English more. But yes, we scored that try, it was a good try from a kick but they give me a bit of niggle about missing that kick [conversion] of Lote's; and one or two others. But the English were playing pretty strong, forward-pack rugby; kicking to the corners and they had Jason Robinson at full-back which really gave them that flare. They were definitely on top, especially up front, and playing some good strong footy really. In the sheds (at half-time), we knew we had to start putting points on the board as, with Wilkinson, we knew they were going to keep accruing points; we knew we had to play a bit of territory down their end and when we get down there to try and hold the ball and puts some points on."

Wilkinson had added three penalties after Tuqiri's sixth-minute try before the visitors seemingly took control of the game as Robinson slid over in the corner for a 14-5 half-time lead. England looked to have one hand on the trophy at that point; but they were held scoreless in the second stanza as Flatley stepped up to the tee on three occasions, including a knee-knockingly nervous shot in the 80th minute, to level the scores at 14-all and send the decider into extra-time.

© AFP/Getty Images/2003 AFP

"I think, as a kicker, you know you're a kicker when you start enjoying those pressure moments," Flatley replied when asked about his three crunch, second-half penalties. "All those hours and hours you've spent practicing for a couple of kicks like that. The first kick I was actually pretty nervous; I was at the stage where I didn't really get nervous kicking anymore but that kick I was definitely a bit nervous. The technique of the kick - if you have a look at it - was pretty horrible. As I kicked, my head was up looking where the ball was going and, thank God, it did go through the posts. That was a great sense of relief actually; there wasn't a lot of air-punching.

"But the second one and obviously the last one, I was very confident and that was really a very nice kick off the boot with good technique; it was a much sweeter kick and far more confident than the first one. But in the end, the same result."

Wilkinson kicked England's first points in 44 minutes with the first penalty of extra-time before Flatley again stepped up to plate and slotted his fifth attempt to level the scores at 17-all with little more than three minutes to play before the prospect of sudden-death rugby.

But heartbreak soon followed for those wearing gold.

© Getty Images

"It was like a car-crash; you could see it coming but you couldn't sort of stop it," Flatley said of Wilkinson's drop goal. "And you know with Jonny in that position he doesn't miss too much. I've actually been on some fields where Jonny was training and we were on next, and we'd have to kick him off because he was still going. And that's why he's such a champion because he works very hard at it and, in big moments, that's what all that practice does.

Izzy excited by journey ahead

"But it just broke our hearts, to go that far in a World Cup, into extra-time, it's cruel. So it was a really hard loss, the boys were just gutted. We were really proud to be in the mix right until the end but absolutely gutted we couldn't get the job done at the death."

Despite the result, the opportunity to play a World Cup on home soil - something England's current players are experiencing now - was not lost on Flatley.

"It was definitely one of the highlights of my career," he said. "We'd had the Lions series in 2001, and I think that was a great thing for Australia; it wasn't a World Cup but it had a really great atmosphere to it. And then into 2003, the World Cup, in front of friends and family; it's the pinnacle of rugby - playing it at home. And we absolutely loved it, and rugby was humming (in Australia) back then; it was really quite popular. We loved every minute of it actually; good team good leadership, a good coach and a good time when we were together away from footy. So it was a lot of fun, just a shoddy result at the end."

© Sam Bruce

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