THAT DROP GOAL
22 november 2003, Telstra Stadium, Sydney, Australia.
Rugby World Cup 2003 Final, Australia - England.
I was already 10 years old, I had already seen a few hundred matches. I had already been to the Flaminio Stadium in 2000 to see Italy beat Scotland 34-20 in the Six Nations. Still, the 2003 World Cup final is the first match I remember clearly.
Minute 100, 30 seconds to the end of the second extra time, teams drawing with the score 17-17. Matt Dawson has his hands on the ball, ready to release it from the ruck, and looks behind his back. About ten meters back, there is a 24-year-old boy with the 10 on his back. He is the youngest of the entire English national team in that World Cup. Actually, that blond and elegant boy has already been there for about fifteen seconds, he has already decided what he has to do, he is waiting for the ball anxiously. He knows it's time to take on the biggest responsibility of his life.
The ball is released from Dawson's hands and flies with an uncertain trajectory towards the number 10, who doesn't have to think about anything anymore. Or rather, one thing he thinks, he makes a further decision: he drops the ball and kicks with his right foot. What's strange about that? That 24-year-old boy is left-footed by nature. On the right foot side he's good, but he's left-footed, and for the most important play of his life he chooses to get out of his comfort zone. The youngest boy of the English national team, with 30 seconds to go before the end of the second half of the World Cup final, kicks with his right foot.
It's 2, 3 seconds at most, but it feels like an eternity. The oval world stands, stops breathing.
The drop kick is not a normal gesture. It's the least common way to score points in a game on a rugby field. For a number 10, scoring a drop goal is more exciting than scoring a try. Lots of fly-halves end their career without ever scoring one. The drop kick is the sublimation of the fly-half role, it's the perfect cross between technique, coldness and quick thinking. The double sound generated by a drop kick, at close impact with the ground and the foot, is something that sends shivers down your spine, making you fall in love with the game.
Before they start a training session, kids don't score tries, nor do tackles, nor passes. They do the drop contest. And it's enough the way a kid looks at his teammates after winning the drop contest to understand how many special things are enclosed in this gesture. No, the drop kick is not a normal gesture.
The young number 10 knows this, he's carried the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders and now there are two possibilities: if the ball doesn't go between the posts, he failed, he threw away the last chance of the team for scoring the final try, and if the team loses, his career will be ruined forever. If the ball goes between the posts, he will become Jonny Wilkinson, a superstar. He will become the blond, serious guy who gave the first World Cup in history to the nation where rugby has its roots, the first World Cup in history to a nation in the Northern Hemisphere.
It's a matter of 2, 3 seconds, a matter of 2, 3 centimeters. Maybe one centimeter. Just one centimeter too far to the right or too far to the left and his life will change completely one way or the other.
How many times in a lifetime is a centimeter enough for things to change diametrically? Every day, some of us make risky decisions and take initiatives that, depending on a centimeter, can represent the birth of a dream or the beginning of a nightmare.
It's not always right, but that's the beauty of life. Some call it destiny. Destiny is totally unpredictable and moves the puzzle that makes up the path of life, the chance to succeed and to be happy. Yeah, that's true for normal people.
But Jonny Wilkinson is not a normal person.
He practiced mornings, afternoons and evenings while his peers went out to have fun, he practiced on Christmas day while his friends were unwrapping presents. He wrote down his own destiny. He always wanted that drop goal. And he always knew how it would end. That 24-year-old blond boy with the 10 on his back was supposed to be Jonny Wilkinson.
The rest is history. We all know how that day ended.
We, our children, our children's children, all of us will continue to do drop contests before our training sessions with our teammates, exulting as if it was the greatest victory of our lives and dreaming of one day being able to repeat it on more important stages.
Dreaming of one day scoring THAT DROP GOAL.