IT WAS a surreal moment to cap off a very surreal time.
Standing at a buffet table nibbling sandwiches – not prawn, honest – alongside Martin Johnson, both of us watching TV replays of England’s World Cup triumph just a couple of hours after the iconic captain had led his country to the historic success.
The way he loitered there, swigging away at his bottle of beer seemingly without a care in the world, gave off an impression of someone who perhaps had just completed a Saturday afternoon run-out for Harrogate 4ths.
The venue, of course, was Sydney’s Telstra Stadium, or more precisely, its press room in the bowels of that arena on November 22, 2003.
After attending the post-match conference following the dramatic 20-17 extra-time win over Australia, swathes of journalists busily typing away were slightly surprised to see almost the entire England playing squad descend into the media zone to mingle at will.
Lions and gazelles spring to mind; who to go after first?
Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson – whose famous drop-goal had secured England’s first World Cup – Will Greenwood, Richard Hill, they were all there suited and booted and offering up this rarest of opportunities.
As the Yorkshire Evening Post’s rather fortunate reporter, who had somehow found himself on a hastily-arranged six-day trip after England had reached the semi-finals, it proved slim pickings when it came to interviewees with that crucial local connection.
Leeds-born Jason Robinson and Mike Tindall, who hails from Otley, were really the only targets. And probably the only two who did not arrive en masse in that press room. Concerning.
However, there was one other – Leeds Tykes hooker Mark Regan, our regular World Cup columnist who was not in the matchday squad but was on hand, as always, to help me out.
Always a gregarious type, ‘Ronnie’ was already well into the beers and buffet when I asked about Tindall’s whereabouts.
‘He’s on the bus, Dave lad. Knee’s knackered. I’ll take you.”
And so he did. I felt somewhat bad when Regan hollered down the coach for the crocked centre to come and talk to the YEP.
As the grimacing Tindall limped down the aisle, I was at pains – just as much as he was – to tell him I was sorry for the interruption. I’d make it quick.
So quick I skipped straight to the chase, explaining our paper’s tenuous link with the Bath player and, so, wondering if there was a former West Yorkshire schoolteacher he might want to thank for his World Cup exploits.
Happy to oblige, Tindall waxed lyrical about John Cholewa, his PE tutor at Wakefield’s Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, answered a few questions on the match itself, and it was job done.
I returned inside just in time to see Wilkinson retell his version of the game’s denouement.
Favourites England, the best side in the world at that point, had worryingly stumbled in trying to finish off the Wallabies previously and there was an air of doom beginning to build.
But Wilkinson, with his weaker right foot, eventually pulled the trigger with accuracy and the Red Rose played out what felt like the longest 30 seconds in history.
Anyone who watched the game will concede it was no classic.
Indeed, everyone seemed to buy me a DVD of it that Christmas to remind me of my own Sydney adventure but, like many, I have never felt any urge at all to watch that final again.
However, undoubtedly it did create sporting theatre in those nerve-shredding final moments.
Ten years on, Wilkinson has been recollecting again that seminal moment when England became champions of the world.
“I’d had a couple of goes before which were very much pot shots, having a dig almost,” he said.
“But for this one I was thinking that because of where the guys had put me, I can’t miss....this must go over. I almost remember feeling like ‘the others drifted wide but this one will go over’.
“I knew I’d hit it in such a way it wasn’t going to be the most powerful kick, but it was going to be accurate. I knew from fairly early on it was going over. What surprised me was I actually got lost in that moment, I didn’t know where I was. I remember half celebrating, but not really celebrating. It felt like a surreal, dream-like situation. I had to ask ‘is this really happening?’ and that was my facial expression.
“Then there was the realisation there was still time left and I really wasn’t up for a third game-tieing penalty from them before the end. There was the panic to get back and the urgency to get the ball off the field and finish the damn thing.”
Opinion remains divided whether the set-up – initially via a long line-out to Lewis Moody – was a well-rehearsed move or just fortunate improvisation.
“We spent years with that team working on a framework to manufacture three points when needed,” Wilkinson said.
“We demanded people knew their roles and everyone else’s roles so that it was as professional and ruthless a manoeuvre as it could possibly be.
“There was no great communication, but under the greatest pressure everybody carried out their roles impeccably. It always seemed strange to me that the World Cup played itself out like it did.
“Not only did we play the final against the hosts, but also that it went down to the very last seconds of extra-time and a drop-goal. All that hard work we did over the years we were obliged to put into practice in one passage of play. The time when we got it exactly right was the time we needed it most. That made it feel like a really special moment when many destinies came together at one point. It was our time.”
He has not watched it since and added: “I’ve tried to preserve the quality of the memories I have which are wrapped up in the feel, the senses, the smell, noises and atmosphere.
“I’d rather keep it there and then in that first-person experience than watch it back, which can taint the memory.
“I want to keep it exactly as I remember it, which was one hell of an experience.”
And what did Johnson say about that vital set-up when watching it back in the corner of that media room: “Clockwork.”
With what I think was as close to a smile as you are ever likely to see from him.