The English were left needing a second-half flash of pure inspiration from fullback Jason Robinson to finally subdue a fantastic Welsh challenge that left England looking distinctly ordinary for much of the match.
Wales dominated every facet of play during the first half, and went into the break with a 10-3 lead. England – who started the game as Rugby World Cup favourites – only managed to climb above the inspired Welsh in the second half.
A magical dash by Robinson led to a Will Greenwood try before fly-half Wilkinson recovered his composure to add five second-half penalties and a late drop-goal.
Fly-half Stephen Jones and flankers Colin Charvis and Martyn Williams managed to cross the line for Wales, and they outscored England by three tries to one. The difference between the teams – as so often is the case for England – was Wilkinson's points-haul.
Indeed, if comparisons are needed – it was Wales who were the more dangerous outfit on display, they put on a display of running rugby that many detractors believed to be beyond their capability.
Even through England had the lions' share of possession, Wales ability to counter-attack at pace made a re-enactment of Wales defeat of England in the quarter-final of RWC '87 a distinct possibility.
England – like New Zealand before them – had few answers to the kind of fluidity that Wales applied to their attack; a fluidity that appears to have sprung from nowhere.
The side that took to the field for England had 704 caps between them – never before had such an experienced side ever trotted on to a rugby pitch. But Wales exploded into the game and made them look like amateurs.
Clive Woodward's side has six 'captains' within it – one for each particular area of play – but the team looked utterly leaderless as wrong decision followed wrong decision.
Indeed, it was only the introduction of the wise head of veteran Mike Catt at half-time that reversed the result in England's favour.
Wilkinson, winning his 50th cap today, looked positively green in the opening exchanges. With Wales breathing down his neck he made a series for poor choices.
Not that it was entirely his fault – with England's backs looking shapeless he was forced to find other avenues of attack, and his tactical kicking from hand let him down badly.
England must have bunked off their video session this week because they looked shocked when Wales started picking at them with the same intensity as they showed against the All Blacks last week.
The English defence was left perplexed as an early Welsh raid saw Robert Sidoli surge over the England line, but the big lock lost control of the ball as he stretched for the touch-down.
England tried all they could to find first gear in the first half – with Jason Robinson putting in the dance moves in an attempt to rouse his team-mates – but it was to no avail.
Wilkinson hit the post with a relatively easy penalty and missed a drop-kick in the opening quarter. His forwards lost two line-out balls, and gave away a rash of penalties in the same period.
The England fly-half opened the scoring with a penalty kick that wobbled through the upright, and England began to feel their way back into the game by putting together some decent phases.
But Wales were as resolute in defence as they were in attack, and a huge hit by centre Mark Taylor on Will Greenwood put pay to any English hopes of a try and buoyed the Welsh fans.
As the strains of 'Bread of Heaven' echoed around Suncorp Stadium, the outstanding Shane Williams picked up a poor cross-field kick meant for an incongruous Ben Kay, and the Welsh backs sliced through England allowing fly-half Stephen Jones to finish off the lightening counter-attack by scoring.
England soon conceded a kickable penalty and Welsh skipper Colin Charvis had the sheer audacity to go for the line-out. From the maul, Wales bludgeoning their way through the much-vaunted England forwards and Charvis was on the end to flop over the line for the try.
It was a carbon-copy of the skipper's try against the All Blacks – down to Charvis' little buff of his own bouffant – and showed just the extent of Wales' newly-found confidence. Where they found it, however, remains an absolutely mystery.
Jones missed again with the conversion – a crucial miss. Wales let 10 points go begging during the match; England only three.
With England distinctly rattled, Wales attempted to press home their advantage with some scintillating breaks. England's panic was exemplified by out of sorts wing Dan Luger who sliced a rushed clearance kick 10 yards backwards – if it had been a tee-shot, he might have holed the green he had just walked away from.
Luger mouthed a curse, England heads hung low, and Woodard looked furious. Meanwhile, Wales' confidence grew and they took to the break seven points clear.
Desperate times call for desperate measures – and Woodward called off Luger, switched Mike Tindall to the wing and brought veteran back Mike Catt into the centre to add a little solidity to the midfield. It proved to be a masterstroke.
With Catt taking charge of midfield distribution and tactical kicking, Wilkinson was free to focus on his own game rather the team's.
England had finally found their shape and – as if to celebrate the fact – Jason Robinson unleashed a moment of pure inspiration.
Having received a quick throw-in on the edge of his own 22, the fullback looked bereft of options. Suddenly he eyed a gap in the Wales midfield, pinned his ears back, and disappeared down the middle. His acute change of pace left the Welsh floundering and Robinson completed his 60-yard sprint by unloading to centre Will Greenwood who went over in the corner for the score.
The try lifted English chins and Wilkinson slotted the tricky conversion and a penalty to recapture the lead.
It was obvious Woodward had knocked some sense into his players during the break, and they began to play some wise percentage rugby that put Wilkinson in a good position to kick another easy penalty.
But Wales hadn't finished – they continued to run at England with some lurid running rugby, but a few wrong decisions far out – and a tighter looking English defensive line – meant that all their hard work came to nought.
Wilkinson looked content to leave Catt in charge of leading the attack and began to focus on his place kicking – and duly added two more penalties from difficult angles with traditional nonchalance.
Catt added an extra dimension to the English attack and his runners began to find holes, Wales were forced to concede another penalty as they back-pedalled and were punished with yet another Wilkinson score.
But while England dug in behind that famous left boot, Wales still had gas to burn, and they continued to put on a terrific handling performance.
After beating the English back, blood replacement Ceri Sweeney put in a cross-field kick and flanker Lawrence Dallaglio – under pressure – could only knock it back and watch as replacement flanker Martyn Williams scampered over to touch down. Iestyn Harris – taking over the kicking duties from the misfiring Jones – stepped up to narrow the gap to eight points.
England composure started to sag again, and some pointless back-chat directed at referee Alain Rolland after a penalty decision moved Harris 10 metres up the field and within kicking range. Woodward was visible annoyed at his players lack of discipline, but his team were let off the hook as Harris' attempt sailed well wide.
It was Wilkinson, naturally, who had the last word by slotting a drop-goal with the last kick of the game.
So, a huge Welsh effort, but a win for England.
The England players trudged off the field forlornly – they are no longer favourites for the Cup, and one can't help to thing how much lower they'll feel once they have taken in France's game against Ireland.
Man of the match: For all England's experience, it was left to replacement Mike Catt to put some brain behind English brawn. The Bath man – who two months ago feared his international career was over – turned the game around by relieved the pressure on Wilkinson, and sparked a few unsettling runs of his own. Expect the number on his back to be in the teens next time you see him.
Moment of the match: Wales played like men possessed and showed some fine passages of play, but it was Jason Robinson's flash of sheer inspiration that caught the eye. The fullback made a try out of absolutely nothing, his sheer accelerations was a joy to behold and punctured the Welsh balloon that looked as if it was about to carry them through to the semi-finals.
Villain of the match: I'm not going to tarnish such a classy performance with nit-picking – yes, Brent Cockbain swung his handbag early on, but there was no harm done. So, no award this time – too many heroes everywhere!
For England:Try: GreenwoodCon: WilkinsonPens: Wilkinson 6DG: Wilkinson
For Wales:Tries: S Jones, Charvis, M WilliamsCon: Harris
England: 15 Jason Robinson, 14 Dan Luger (Mike Catt, 40), 13 Will Greenwood (Stuart Abbott, 55), 12 Mike Tindall, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Matt Dawson (Kyran Bracken, 67), 8 Lawrence Dallaglio, 7 Neil Back, 6 Lewis Moody, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Martin Johnson, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Jason Leonard (Trevor Woodman, 49).Unused replacements: 16 Dorian West, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Joe Worsley.
Wales: 15 Gareth Thomas, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Mark Taylor, 12 Iestyn Harris, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones (Ceri Sweeney, 58-63), 9 Gareth Cooper (Dwayne Peel, 64), 8 Jonathan Thomas (Martyn Williams, 58), 7 Colin Charvis (captain), 6 Dafydd Jones, 5 Robert Sidoli, 4 Brent Cockbain (Gareth Llewellyn, 46), 3 Adam Jones (Gethin Jenkins, 29), 2 Robin McBryde (Mefin Davies, 64), 1 Iestyn Thomas.Unused replacement: 22 Kevin Morgan.
By Andy Jackson