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Last Updated: Monday, 17 November, 2003, 05:48 GMT
Wilkinson magic answers critics
MATCH SUMMARY
Wilkinson kicked five penalties

England skipper Martin Johnson leapt to the defence of Jonny Wilkinson after he kicked his team into the World Cup final against Australia.

Johnson heaped praise on his fly-half's 24-point semi-final haul against France in atrocious weather conditions.

Wilkinson had failed to fire on all cylinders in the run-up to Sunday's clash but bounced back to form in emphatic fashion, kicking five penalties and three drop goals - the latter a record for an Englishman.

"A lot of stick came his way this week, totally unwarranted in my view. And he came through and played a fantastic game," said Johnson.

While Wilkinson emerged as England's hero, his opposite number Frederic Michalak - who some predicted might steal the show - seemed to crack under the pressure.

He was was eventually replaced by the more experienced Gerald Merceron.

"Michalak made a few mistakes under pressure. His kicking wasn't great, and that hurt their chances," said Johnson.

"Jonny was quite the opposite, I thought he controlled the game brilliantly and his kicking was fantastic, which kept us ticking over in what was a close game.

Someone said he was dead, but he was very alive tonight
France coach Bernard Laporte hails Wilkinson

Johnson added: "He's the best fly-half in the world and every team would want to have him - I'm just glad he's on our team."

Wilkinson himself said he had not been aware of the criticism directed his way before the match.

"I have not read a paper since I've been out here," he said.

"I am happy for people to have their opinion; that's the whole point. When I represent my country I am everyone's property, and everyone is allowed to have their opinion.

"I just try to please the rest of my team-mates with my performances."

England may face criticism from the rest of the rugby world for their lack of tries victory - they have scored just one since the pool stages.

But Wilkinson said the stormy weather played its part.

He added: "The rain hit us and we all knew it wasn't going to be the most spectacular game of rugby.

"But when you go into a game of this nature any sort of win is going to be satisfying."

France coach Bernard Laporte was also quick to heap praise on England's match-winner.

"Wilkinson has a fantastic ability to put a team under pressure," said Laporte.

"Someone said he was dead, but he was very alive tonight. He kicked the penalties and dropped the goals."





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