Former England loose forward Neil Back has revealed the pivotal sequence of events that allowed Jonny Wilkinson to land his iconic match-winning drop goal against the Wallabies in the 2003 World Cup final.
The three-pointer landed by Wilkinson on the brink of full-time in extra-time to hand England their first-ever world title has long been heralded as one of the most iconic moments in the history of the game.
The 97-test playmaker’s exploits pushed England into a 20-17 lead with mere seconds left on the clock, leaving Australia no time to force a comeback as Martin Johnson became the first Englishman to lift the Webb Ellis Cup aloft.
Speaking to RugbyPass in an exclusive interview alongside ex-Wallabies centurion Matt Giteau, Back – who started at openside flanker for England in that match – pinpointed two key moments throughout the contest that led to arguably the most memorable and dramatic drop goal of all-time.
After having gone behind early in the match thanks to a Lote Tuqiri try inside the opening five minutes, Wilkinson landed three consecutive penalties that pushed England into the lead by the half hour mark.
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A Jason Robinson try near the end of the half left Sir Clive Woodward’s men with a 14-5 advantage at half-time, but Back re-called a butchered try by lock Ben Kay that could have given his side an even healthier lead.
“We’re playing well, we’re challenging them, we create an opportunity,” Back said of a loose ball that was toed through by blindside flanker Richard Hill to place England deep inside opposition territory.
With the Wallabies scrambling defensively, an overlap opened up for the English just metres from the Australian tryline, but a dropped ball by Kay left the reigning Six Nations champions reeling without any points.
“A ruck, a little pass from Back, Daws [England halfback Matt Dawson] is at the contact and then passes to Ben Kay. He drops the ball,” Back laughed as he recalled the incident.
That handling blunder allowed the Wallabies to claw their way back into the contest, with three second half penalties to Wallabies midfielder Elton Flatley – including one on the stroke of full-time – sent the game into a period of extra-time.
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Wilkinson and Flatley traded a penalty goal apiece to leave the score tied up at 17-all with three minutes to play, with another period of sudden-death action looming on the horizon.
However, Back said the way in which he and his teammates rallied behind Kay following his error, as well as the introduction of Lewis ‘Mad Dog’ Moody in the dying stages of the encounter, laid the foundations for Wilkinson to land his famous drop goal.
“Lewis ‘Mad Dog’ Moody was called it for a reason. He chased everything, he chased the ball like a bone, and he created a charge down on Mat Rogers, their fullback, that skewed his kick,” Back said.
“We got a lineout about 38 metres out, and this is where this next jump call comes into play because if we’d have ranked Ben Kay for dropping the ball over the line in that first half, he wouldn’t have made this lineout call now.
“You’re 38 metres out, you’ve got a minute 10 [seconds] on the clock, it’s 17-all, and you’ve got to get in a position to score a try, kick a penalty or drop a goal.
“Because Ben Kay was supported by his teammates, he made this call. If you wanted to secure possession to get in a position to score points to win a game in a World Cup final, any game, are you going to throw it to the front of the lineout to Martin Johnson, your captain, short throw?
“Are you going to throw it to Ben Kay, your lineout leader, your lineout caller?
“Or are you going to throw it to Mad Dog Moody, who’d just come on like a flipping crazy man with a midget – and that’s me – lifting him behind?
“What way are you going to go? Well, if Ben Kay wasn’t mentally tough, if the players didn’t support him, he’d have called it to Johnno [Johnson] – easy ball, front ball, secure the possession.
“We sort of referred to Hannibal, who won battles in wars, doing exactly the opposite of what his opponents expected, or history had dictated what happened before, so he was brave enough to call it to the back of the lineout [to Moody].”
Moody won the ensuing lineout throw, and two phases later, after a sniping dart around the ruck fringes from Dawson to put his side inside the Australian 22, Wilkinson popped through the historic drop goal to give England the victory.
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While England are yet to add a second World Cup crown to their name, Back said the achievements of the 2003 squad can never be taken away from them.
“I was lucky enough to win everything you could win as a Northern Hemisphere club and international player, [but] this was a World Cup. We were world champions for the next four years. No one could ever take that away from us,” he said.
“You’re a world champion for the rest of your life.”
Join us at 3pm Sunday afternoon UK time for a full replay of the 2003 World Cup final
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