Wilkinson wins for England with late dropped goal - at Narberth!

(Contributed for your enjoyment by Fraser Watson)

If I spoke about a last-gasp Jonny Wilkinson drop goal to seal glory for England you’d immediately cast your mind back to the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, wouldn’t you?

Unless you were involved with either Narberth RFC or the Welsh Schools’ set-up back in 1997. If so, you might instead be recalling the most dramatic of international fixtures that turned 23 years-old in mid-April.

Quality squads in both camps

In front of a packed Lewis Lloyd Memorial Ground, England Schools’ (under 18 level) arrived on the brink of a Five Nations’ Grand Slam. As a measure of their strength, nine of their squad members that day would go on to be England internationals and four of those - Iain Balshaw, Andrew Sheridan, Lee Mears and of course Wilkinson himself - later became Lions.

The hosts though, despite having only beaten Scotland from their previous three fixtures, were brimming with potential too.

In the centre was Rhys Williams, whose tweet this week recalling this very fixture sparked off the nostalgia. Gareth Cooper started at scrum half while Adam Jones played in the second row. Namesake Duncan was a replacement.

Gareth Williams and Scott Morgan would one day join the above in being capped by Wales at senior level.

Local involvement in the back row, as head coach and chairman of selectors

And for local fans, there was Pembrokeshire involvement. At blindside flanker was Greenhill School and Tenby RFC player Adrian Chiffi. Amongst the replacements was Andrew Jenkins, who would later go on to serve stints as a player and a coach at Whitland.

Then Tasker Milward teacher Richard ‘Stag’ Jones served as Wales head coach, while Chairman of selectors at the time was Dai Davies, of Ysgol Dewi Sant.

The latter was the reason that myself, aged 13, and other pupils from the School had been asked (ordered) to come along.

It would later dawn on us that we had watched a high quality game of schoolboy rugby. And yet we had no idea we’d see many of the players in action for years to come –but it would be either via television or after parting with £50 plus.

A dramatic match well recalled by announcer Brawn

The MC was Narberth’s Freeman Brawn, who remembers the afternoon well.

“Malcolm Jones, who was actually treasurer of the Welsh Youth set-up at the time was instrumental in us getting the game,” he recalled.

“But we were awarded it on the grounds we had a grandstand and good facilities at the time. It was marvellous to have it in Narberth.”

Serious contest – and a dramatic finish

The weather was superb and the quality of the contest matched it. Cooper and Williams (Rhys) scored scintillating tries for Wales, the No 9 from a scrum on half-way and Williams after dancing his way over in the corner. No 10 Gareth Bowen, who would later play regional rugby for Scarlets, landed seven points with the boot.

Centre Tindall notched two tries for England, while Wilkinson added a conversion and a penalty. But the latter had endured an indifferent afternoon until with seconds left, and his side trailing 17-15, he delivered the most devastating of blows.

Welsh full back Cerith Rees opted to try and kick long downfield where Wilkinson was waiting. He gathered possession 45 metres out, steadied himself, and executed a drop goal that cleared the bar by inches. The despairing image of Rees with his head in his hands underneath the posts still haunts me.

A new star was born!

The ball had barely landed when referee Eddie Walsh called time, and a star was born.

“I vividly remember the drop goal,” added Brawn.

“I was standing at the clubhouse end thinking Wales were going to win it and they deserved it too. He struck it from such a long way out. In fact you couldn’t tell from where I was if it had gone over because it was so close but the reaction of the Welsh full back gave it away.

“Two years later, before the Scott Gibbs game at Wembley, Wilkinson wrote a piece in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and mentioned this match. He said it had been a long way from ‘Narberth to Wembley’. I still have the article.”

Chairman Dai vividly recalls the event

As for Chairman Davies, I opened our phone conversation this week with: “I want to test your memory on a game played 23….” – I didn’t need to finish the question.

“Oh I can still see that bloody drop goal now,” he said, with the air of a man who isn’t yet over it either.

“We had been by far the better team and it was very upsetting to lose. But that was typical Wilkinson, as he showed six years later when England won the World Cup.”

The Welsh squad would later tour New Zealand that year and go down twice to an All Black Schools’ side captained by Jerry Collins, but did win three representative games on a memorable tour.

“It would have been nice to go there having beaten England but to be honest, I don’t think that made any difference to the results on our trip. We still had a very special time there and all in all it was a memorable year.”

And finally . . .

Ironically, a day after that Wilkinson drop goal another future global star would announce himself, as Tiger Woods captured his first green jacket at Augusta.

The England No 10’s feat in Narberth didn’t quite get the acclaim as that achievement, but on his CV is not only doing the goods in a World Cup final front of 83,500 people in Stadium Australia – but doing it in front of several hundred in Pembrokeshire too.

I wonder which one he remembers most.


Match programme

Rhys Williams shows good handsGareth Cooper controlling matters
Wales on the charge
Wales scrum half Gareth Cooper spots a gap
Good hands from WalesTry time for WalesWales on the charge
Wales heading for the cornerGareth Cooper chips ahead for WalesWales look to break