Best of RWC - Episode 10


2003 – Upsets

Part 10 in my series recalling the best moments of Rugby World Cup.

This installment 2003, RWC V, the tournament stolen by dingoes (on so many levels … although let’s not go into the whole Rutherford-Murray McCaw-O’Neil-Pugh co-hosting drama).

Again, this was written almost entirely from memory, and some “facts” may not have been properly researched.

I originally wrote this back in 2007, so I trolled back through the ’03 Cup records to see if there was another game which could be considered an upset that I could talk about to deflect the spotlight, but no there wasn’t, so bugger it all, we’re stuck with:

Australia 22 v New Zealand 10: Semi Final 1

One, oh all right, another, of those matches we NZers and AB supporters would dearly love to forget.

Former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick was quoted in the lead up to this match saying he would not pick a single Wallaby in a combined ANZAC side. Those words have been shoved down his throat by indignant Aussies ever since, but perplexingly given the result, he was pretty close to being right. Given the form they had shown in 2003 and in early Cup games, with the exception of Stirling Mortlock and George Smith, not one of that Wallaby team should have been considered possibilities for an ANZAC XV.

Mortlock’s “selection” was assisted by the All Blacks backing themselves into a corner to have to play a fullback at centre (it’s just something we do at World Cups). Smith, despite suffering from the (NSW driven) Aussie obsession with Phil Waugh, and being out of position, get’s my nod as blindside purely through sheer class. (And given his opponent was less dynamic and somewhat glue like. But I digress.)

In my opinion this is a bigger upset than the NZ v France semi-final four years earlier.

NZ came into the tournament on the back of some sublime form. During their away leg of the Tri-Nations they had racked up over 50 points against both South Africa and Australia. They had returned home and defeated the Boks with a “rotated” forward pack and held out a late Wallaby comeback to regain the Bledisloe Cup after five years. (Remember when we didn’t hold it? No? Too long ago?)

Earlier they had dropped their first test of the season against raging hot World Cup favourites England by a measly 2 points, the minimal margin despite the XV looking a little experimental (Umaga-Nonu midfield, Howlett at fullback, So’oialo at number 8… and the not awarded penalty try…)

In spite of the loss that match showed that NZ were more than a match for the much vaunted England forwards, matching up for size and weight, as they took the honours in the forward battle. (Proponents of the legend of the Pom’s six man scrum “victory”, itself a result of repeated cynical cheating, tend to neglect the penalty try won by the All Blacks – I’m looking at you Ben Kay. Unfortunately referee Stuart Dickenson, and his TMO, did not rule on the painfully obvious. But I digress. Again.)

Australia meanwhile, in addition to dropping both Tri-Nations/Bledisloe matches to the ABs, got past Wales & Ireland early in the season, but were monstered by England, split the two games with South Africa and at no stage looked comfortable.

In early tournament games Australia managed wins, but was far from fluent against Argentina, and looked distinctly vulnerable against Ireland, then Scotland in the quarter final.

NZ breezed through their early matches and although expected to blow past Wales with no problems the Taffs gave them a scare, before a three try final quarter saw the ABs home.

NZ’s forwards returned to form in the quarter final destroying the Boks, the only worrying aspect being the poor finishing of the many chances created.

A common theme across their most impressive games in 2003 leading into the semi-final (the QF, the two away Tri-Nations games, and the England test) was the forward tactics employed. Much of the All Black play in these games looked to punch holes very close to the breakdown, using one-off and inside runners, pick-and-go’s and mauls to make ground.

Many Australians seem to suggest that defensive deficiencies in the NZ backline won them the match. However the abandonment of the forward tactics previously employed to such good effect was, in my opinion, the deciding factor. Switching tactics to using runners two-out and wider of the breakdown fell right into the teeth of the Australian defence, and suited their two-open side flanker combination, compounded by the early loss of Justin Marshall, who reveled in the “normal” game plan.

Marshall has suggested that the shot by Smith that took him out was premeditated.

Had the All Blacks been able to capitalise on the possession they gained as the match wore on they could have subdued the Wallabies forwards and clawed back the early lead.

Regardless of the whys, Eddie Jones out-coached John Mitchell, and the Wallabies, written off by so many, deserved their victory by passionately implementing their game plan.

The match could easily have gone the “right” way if two early incidents favoured the All Blacks.

The first of these was when Mils Muliaina was put over in the right hand corner from an excellently worked backline move. The try was (correctly) referred to the TMO who (incorrectly) ruled “no try”. I have been surprised by the lack of comment on this decision as I believe that there was a strong case for awarding the try, even under the old rules requiring “downward pressure”. It should certainly have been awarded under the “control” ruling now in force (I’m not sure when this law changed). Perhaps New Zealanders are more gracious in defeat than some like to paint us?

The second was the famous Mortlock try. With the line open Carlos Spencer floated a pass that would have put any one of about three All Black backs under the bar. Mortlock, showing great anticipation, took the only option available to him, flashed in for the intercept, and streaked 90m to grab seven for his team.

The 14 point turnaround was effectively the winning of the match.

The All Blacks showed some signs of making a comeback, skipper Reuben Thorne crashing over before the break, but the Australian defence was stifling in the second half.

England were deservedly overwhelming favourites for the Cup but I’ve convinced myself that NZ had the beating of them. Perhaps their minds were not entirely on the job at hand in the semi. But that point is rather moot and does not sufficiently acknowledge Australia’s part in this match. So it was a case of “four more years, boys, four more years” before they could have another crack at Bill the Trophy.

Coach John Mitchell lost his job following this match, and this was pounced on by the international rugby media and All Black anti-fans as “proof” of how vicious New Zealand are towards failed coaches, and just how desperate NZ was to win back Bill. As with all good legends there is a grain of truth, but also massive amounts of making facts fit the story.

Mitchell’s job was lost as a result of his off-field rather than on-field performance. Rumours of his treatment of sponsors, fellow employees and media abound. New Zealanders recall the frustration of getting any sense from the coach on the few occasions he communicated with the public and media, and the real lack of public interaction with the team in 2002-03.

Keith Quinn relates an anecdote in his World Cup diary “Journey to Nowhere” about how, as stories of Mitchell’s impending demise circulated at the business end of the tournament, a NZRU official, when asked what would happen if the All Blacks won the Cup, replied “that would make things…errr…awkward”.

Even so, it seems Mitchell was highly regarded as a coach-with-a-future by the NZRU and was in fact given a high profile job when he lost out to Graham Henry. Subsequent performances suggest the correct decision was made.

One of the great shames of the fall-out from the Mitchell era is that the most successful coach in SANZAR rugby, Robbie Deans, remained an outsider for the top job due in large part to his commendable loyalty to his erstwhile boss. Deans, who shoulders much of the blame (see what I did there?) for the loss from some quarters, did not apply for the head-coach job, preferring to stand again as assistant to Mitchell. Deans of course missed out again post-2007, with talk that rifts arising from the ’03 campaign may have continued to haunt him four years later. He went on to coach Australia.

Anyway, Australia moved on from here to nearly pull off the upset of the century (given that the century was only 3 years old) by taking England deep into extra time before Johnny Wilkinson’s droppy was able to able to break the deadlock in an epic final – probably the best of the five World Cup finals to that date, and beyond. This, of course, in the next episode RWC V “Classics”.

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