By Alan Dymock
ON SATURDAY the British and Irish Lions face the Queensland Reds, a team they thumped 42-8 last time they met at Ballymore 12 years ago. The ground itself became legendary for hosting the infamously physical second Test in the Lions series of 1989, but on that that day, on June 16 2001, Ballymore became the testing ground for one of rugby’s greatest duels.
It was the first ever match-up between Jonny Wilkinson and Elton Flatley.
“I remember watching that Lions game at Ballymore in ’89,” Wilkinson says as we talk about that third game on the 2001 tour Down Under. “I knew the place had historical significance. It was exciting playing there because I came in with not very much time to prepare, as the Lions were never going to have international-style preparation, but we set the tour up. I was actually injured, with my groin, but I enjoyed it.”
The Toulon captain has since been laid low with another groin injury, making it almost impossible for him to be called up as a replacement to tour again, 12 years after he held the rudder for the Lions in the land of green and gold. However, in that match against Queensland, while the likes of Dan Luger and Keith Wood were helping the fly-half dominate the province, the opposition playmaker was the man who caught Wilkinson’s eye.
“I remember him [Flatley] being an all-round talent, with his kicking and moving. He had it all but once I got to know him the overriding issue for me became the fact that he was just a really nice bloke. Sometimes when you play you can say you will do this to someone or do that, but it becomes much harder against people that have respect for others and great values. They are the tricky ones, because they are the ones who know your game and understand every decision, as real leaders.”
For the lovers of the game this first meeting is a significant moment in the history of rugby. It was the first time that Wilkinson and Flatley stood directly opposite each other, studying their opponent, staring him down.
Flatley’s all-round talent was not advertised at fly-half in a game where only Sam Cordingley crossing the whitewash for the hosts. One measly Queensland conversion was matched with four from Wilkinson, plus three penalties. However, he was at stand-off the day Australia won the third Test against the Lions to snatch the series and just two years later the Australian picked the biggest stage of all, the World Cup final, to take the Englishman’s breath away.
“There were two kicks Flatley had to make in the final and I remember thinking ‘there’s no way he can get them both,’” Wilkinson continues. “When you take me out of the moment, there was so much pressure there and once he kicked the first one I went to the halfway for the restart and actually said out loud ‘fair play.’
“When he took the second I did wonder if they would get there, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. From Flatley that was quality, right there. The kicks were difficult even though they may not have been on the edge of his range. You have got to make those and he did.”
That duel in the final between two dead-eyed sharpshooters has become iconic. Wilkinson met with a determined and nerveless foe in the then-inside centre, and he raised his own game. The showdown will live long in the memory, but on the other side is self-deprecating Flatley, a man quick to smile and point out that his meetings with Wilkinson have always been coloured by the fact he was set against impressive units.
“In 2001 Queensland put up a full-strength team full of internationals. We were confident and we knew it would be great to get a Lions scalp. We would go down in history if we got that. Then I went to the breakdown and Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back were there!”
The New South Wales-born footballer laughs. He has been to the pinnacle of the game and played scintillating rugby, but he would rather explain the dismay in the shed after being bludgeoned by the Lions than gloat about the Test series victory he played a part in.
So what was it like facing Jonny for the first time?
“I remember watching him train at Ballymore. He stayed out two hours after the team. He is the consummate professional and as a competitor he is right up there. He had to be the best and he ended up winning the World Cup (two years later). I would have loved to see him back here again. In Australia they would love to see the back of him, but we respect him.”
Flatley will always share a part of history with his English counterpart, even if the events on that day were simply part of his routine.
“With that first kick I was nervous,” Flatley explains of his shot-for-shot second half with Wilkinson in 2003, “but, as Jonny will agree, that is why you spend all those hours kicking. In those moments the training takes over.
“With the second kick I was confident – perhaps over-confident – and I put it through. It was one of the great games, even if it was absolutely the wrong result. It was so, so close but England were deserving World Cup champions and Jonny deserved to win.”
The two could not be further apart now. Flatley is an insurance advisor in Queensland. He is happy he will not be in the defensive line when the big Lions come roaring forward and the romantic in him wants a series draw heading into the last Test of the tour. Wilkinson says he now feels more comfortable in his own skin. He wants to help young players on at Toulon and although he is “freaked out” by the idea of being a player-coach, he does see his future in mentoring individuals. He just wants the Lions to build momentum as a team before those Tests.
The decorated pair may respect each other and are at pains to explain how resplendent the other is, but they are definitely different and whatever they say it was their bloody attempts to vanquish each other that made their rivalry one of the game’s best.
As Owen Farrell and Quade Cooper vie to dominate proceedings at Suncorp on Saturday, perhaps they may capture just a little of that respectful enmity. Perhaps they may go on to duel in future years. Then again, maybe we will never see the likes of Wilkinson versus Flatley again.
Jonny Wilkinson was speaking to Rugby World on behalf of Gillette’s Great Start programme, celebrating the role of coaching and encouraging the next generation to get into coaching by offering grants. To apply for a coaching grant visit www.facebook.co.uk/GilletteUK