Rugby could not have wished for a more dramatic conclusion to a great tournament, England a more fitting reward for years of sweat, or Jonny Wilkinson a better-timed drop goal for as long as he lives.

When the pink-faced fly-half - who had absorbed a systematic hammering all match - pulled the trigger on the final scoring shot of the tournament, there cannot have been an Englishman here or watching anywhere else from Leeds to London who did not know that it was going to win the World Cup.

Boring? Hardly. This was critic-silencing drama of the most sublime variety. The sight of a stunned Australian is a pretty one indeed, especially from the perspective of an England team derided for a fortnight - in the best possible taste - as the rugby equivalent of Steve Davis.

Now, maybe, we can stop talking about Australian sporting dominance. Until the next Ashes tour, at least. And about 1966. This was every bit as dramatic a victory as that over West Germany. And, just as at Wembley then, the opposition here equalised in the last minute of scheduled time and the England No 10 won it in the second period of an almost cruel extension thereafter.

Soon, also, we might leave Fred Perry in the history books and forget about any other neuroses afflicting the national sporting psyche. Before long, these players will be hoisted up alongside Bobby Moore and all the others.

Afterwards, Clive Woodward was just as keen to talk about 2004, about the next Six Nations Championship and about how he hopes that this supposedly creaking collection of relics will rumble on for a little longer. But, as he also said, sport is about today. And, as his old sparring partner Eddie Jones graciously conceded, for the loser there is no tomorrow.

Not for the first time between these teams, the struggle was condensed into the most desperate finish. With the scores tied and George Gregan bearing down on him just outside the Australia 22, Wilkinson shifted weight behind his less-favoured right foot and, oblivious to the tyranny of the clock that showed only seconds left in the second 10 minutes of extra time, he delivered.

Three points, one World Cup - and, after Mike Catt booted the frantically taken Australia restart into touch to signal the end, 82,957 stunned witnesses to what was one of the truly memorable confrontations in international rugby.

This most intriguing of talents - a man regarded by many as the best kicker in the history of the game but who some well-paid contrarians insisted was cracking under media scrutiny and the weight of his expectations - did what he has done so many times for England. As one Australian writer remarked last week, it is absurd to pick over the minor faults of a genius. We should enjoy Boy Bonkers while we can.

No one wins it for England more consistently that Wilkinson. It was their fifth straight win over Australia - unprecedented - and by some way the most significant of the 40 they have recorded out of 44 during the past four years. And the last team to beat Australia in a World Cup match? England in the 1995 quarter-finals. The tide might just be turning.

England entered the World Cup ranked number one in the world and shared favouritism with New Zealand. Unlike the All Blacks, they were there at the business end of the tournament. However, as in most of their games recently, England started miserably. Stephen Larkham, back to his best for Australia, cross-kicked to their new sensation, Lote Tuqiri, who, in defiance of his inexperience (this was his thirty-second game of rugby union), outjumped Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey to score in the corner.

Significantly, perhaps, Elton Flatley could not convert - just as he failed with two other attempts, one a ludicrously long penalty. In difficult conditions, the game was always going to swing on the boot.

Ben Kay blew the best chance of a try he will have had in his career when, after 24 minutes with the pressure mounting, he spilt a pass inches from the line. For lesser sides, it might have been a crushing setback. But England regrouped as Wilkinson kicked them back to parity, before Robinson, a harrying, sniping pest all match, exposed Wendell Sailor's defensive inadequacies two minutes before the break. Hitting the line with exquisite timing, he got on the end of a movement started by Lawrence Dallaglio, who passed inside to Wilkinson, who switched the ball outside again, leaving the defence cross-legged in confusion.

Still, a 14-5 lead at half-time against the side Woodward has been predicting for two years would be the team to beat in this World Cup, looked slim. And so it proved. As they slugged it out on an increasingly treacherous surface, it looked more as if England were hanging on. They won line-outs against the throw, only to lose their own. They dropped a couple of passes they might have held, but they made the tackles that counted.

Nevertheless, they could not score in the second half and, in the final minute, Flatley converted a penalty awarded against Trevor Woodman for boring in against an obviously outclassed front row. As Johnson said later, it was an inexplicable decision that might have left them totally deflated.

But it did not. They resumed hostilities in extra time at 14-14. Wilkinson landed a superb penalty, 45 metres out and 10 metres in from touch, to put England in front, but they were looking decidedly frazzled. Especially so in the 17th of the extra 20 minutes when Flatley equalised with a simple penalty after Dallaglio had handled in a ruck.

As notebooks ran out of paper, as we wondered what would happen with another tied score, the game hit a climax to savour.

Matt Dawson broke up the middle, in front of the Australia posts, Neil Back barged back in to create more space and time, as did Johnson, and then finally the ball was spun to Wilkinson. He had missed three of these earlier; he was not going to miss the one that mattered.

Critics who said that England were formidable only at Fortress Twickenham underestimated, or misunderstood, the true nature of the team. While they are undeniably products of a revolution started by Woodward when he was appointed England's first full-time coach in 1997, they are not machines, even if they are often painted as such. They are testimony to a methodical and clear-sighted system, certainly, and they were provided with every aid, but ultimately they won the World Cup with their hearts and their experience. After 100 minutes, they stood supreme, victors over their oldest foe.

The Grumpy Old Men found what was needed when it was needed. It was not perfect; rugby rarely is. They started poorly, as they have done all tournament, and finished breathless, as the committed winner should.

At the end, just as the younger legs of the defending champions threatened to break England's stretched resources, they held their nerve as surely as they held the greasy ball on a night of drizzle and wind. 'There's no secret,' Woodward said, 'no magic system. I just kept picking the best team I could for the past few years. Simple as that.'

Simple as that.

Wilkinson had made a mess of three drop-goal attempts at key moments earlier with his left foot, but those statistics, like all the others, were rendered irrelevant in the split-second it took the rain-greased ball to clear the crossbar.

Man of the match:

Jonny Wilkinson

Nobody was ever in doubt about how important Wilkinson was to England. To win the whole thing with only 30 seconds of a seven-week tournament at his disposal revealed the coolest nerve, a kicking technique grooved through thousands of hours of practice and an ability to ignore criticism.

He ran the ball more than expected, he overcame an awful collision with Matt Giteau and he generally marshalled the line soundly in difficult conditions. Ironically, his drop-kicking, with his favoured left foot produced nothing on the scoreboard. But two of his four penalties came from deep, with rain and a light wind slicing across his path. It's what he is paid to do. And then, with his right, he found strength and calmness to pot the winner. And he's only 24.

How England rated:

Josh Lewsey:Why do they bother giving him the No 15 shirt? Once again he played the game on the right wing. Lote Tuqiri was a handful, but so was Lewsey, regularly darting at the Aussies early on before his game developed into an astute one of support. 7

Jason Robinson: He it was who played full-back and he was masterful. Outjumped by Tuqiri for Australia's try, but then he is half the size and he got his own back with a try of his own. Otherwise, he had ice in his veins when tidying up, kicked well and his counterattacking was as always bewitching. 8

Will Greenwood: One of the games of his life, appropriately in the most important game of his life. He might look gangly but as a target for his back row no one was more imposing on either side. His defence was tireless, too. Dropped a crucial ball, however, towards the end of normal time. 8

Mike Tindall: So it's Mike Catt who takes the pressure off Jonny Wilkinson, is it? Well, you couldn't stop Tindall from sending huge touch finders over the heads of the Aussie back three and skidding safely into touch. No one passed through his channel in midfield. 8

Ben Cohen: A lot of ball-carrying, and there is no doubt that it is reassuring to see a man of his size take those hits. Most importantly, is rarely exposed any more in the subtler departments of the game. 7

Jonny Wilkinson:Is there any point in writing anything here? You all saw it. The others are all writing about it. Couple of good hits here and there. Brought a few people into play. Knocked over a couple of kicks. Should be set up for life. 9

Matt Dawson: Always on the look for gaps around the fringes, but for the first time this tournament found a few of them. Closing out the boy Jonny was no longer enough for the Aussies with Dawson sniping as well. A nuisance at the base. 8

Trevor Woodman: England had Australia's scrum in terrible trouble in the first half, before the referee began to take exception. Woodman also began to turn the screw in the loose, but then he spoiled it all with some unwise handling, and gave away the penalty that levelled the scores. Nearly cost England the cup. 7

Steve Thompson: Under these unusual circumstances there will be no six given this match. Thompson might have been the unlucky one, though. His line-out throwing started to wobble a bit as the game wore on, but they kept asking him to throw to the back in trying conditions, so is that his fault? 7

Phil Vickery: Don't really know what to make of this. England had been so dominant at the scrum, but then Vickery started to get penalised repeatedly. No one else, apart from Woodman, was penalised in either front row. Can he really have deliberately infringed all those times? Can rugby really let something as unknowable and chaotic as front-row play have such an influence on the outcome of a World Cup? 7

Martin Johnson (c): The last time an England team under his command lost was... No, can't think. He just won't allow it. And who's going to argue? No one in this World Cup. No one in this world. 9

Ben Kay: No player was more bound up in the fluctuating fortunes of the game than Kay. He will not need to be reminded of the knock-on that denied England a certain try, nor the one at a line-out late in the game that surrendered vital possession. Elsewhere, though, he was magnificent in the line-out and loose. But he makes the line-out calls and one or two were questionable. 8

Richard Hill: The quiet man was again to the fore, tackling anything that moved. His chase of a loose hack ahead was won brilliantly against a faster man and would have resulted in a try but for Kay's knock-on. Never seems to lose the ball. 8

Neil Back: As always a reassuring presence at the back of rolling mauls and probably at the unseen bottom of countless rucks. Didn't for once look too comfortable stepping in at scrum-half, but it was a horrible day. 7

Lawrence Dallaglio: His best game of the tournament. Started shakily, throwing a horrible looping pass to no one, but after that ran into the areas where it was going to hurt the opposition most - at last. Superb involvement in the try. As adamant as Johnson that his team will not lose. 8


Mike Catt: His pristine shirt stood out in the latter stages of the game, and his running in it was untouchable as well. Sliced regularly through the grubby-looking Aussie defence. 7

Jason Leonard: Don't know if he did anything, but that's 113 now. Worth a 10 in itself. 7

You've read the piece, now have your say. Email your comments, be as frank as you like, we can take it, to , or mail the Observer direct at sport


Kevin Mitchell in Sydney

The GuardianTramp

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