Best of RWC - Episode 11
2003 – Classics
Number 11 in the series celebrating my opinion of the best of the eight Rugby World Cups to date.
Whilst the opinions expressed are not open to debate the facts may be.
Ireland 16 v Argentina 15
I always loved the battles between the teams ranked two and tree in a Pool who had a realistic chance to make the quarter finals, the desperation with which they approached the matches against each other.
This one was no exception.
Played in the rugby stronghold (or not) of Adelaide the match was probably not one of the highest quality but the desperate one-point finish and the stakes (reaching the knock-out rounds) elevates this to “classic” status.
England 35 v Samoa 22
England were the hottest of hot hot favourites for the 2003 Cup. Did Samoa care? Apparently not.
This match threatened for long periods of time to be the biggest upset in the history of Rugby World Cup, and perhaps international rugby as a whole. The Samoans threw caution to the wind as they raced all over Melbourne’s Telstra Dome and were leading well into the second half.
England were shocked by the Samoans and even Johnny Wilkinson got the goal kicking yips.
It took all of England’s collective experience and forward power and control to muscle back into the game and eventually ease away.
Martin Johnson’s post match interview where he told the interviewer not to patronise the Samoans as “these boys can play” was a highlight.
Australia 17 v Ireland 16
Again, like Ireland versus Argentina in the same pool, this was not a great game of footy – but crikey it was close to an upset.
Sorry but I can’t remember much about this game other than there was one try a piece and I remember thinking that Ireland really were unlucky not to tip the hosts over in this one. Unfortunately I can’t remember why I thought that.
Also famous for referee Paddy O’Brien causing the country of his ancestors consternation as he was seen to sing along to Australia’s national anthem.
Interestingly one of my brothers-in-law, a South Australian who is a huge Australian Rules fan and ex-pro player back in the day, went to this through his work and thought it was fantastic. Amazing what atmosphere and a “perfect” stadium (Melbourne’s Docklands/This year’s sponsorname Dome) will do !!
Scotland 22 v Fiji 20
Fiji were robbed. In my opinion they were the victims of the favourites receiving the rub of the referee’s green in this match.
As above, another of those Pool matches where two v three in the Pool seeds smashed each other for the Quarter Final spot.
(last 10 mins of the match)
Api Naevo’s yellow card in the dying minutes for a non-existent offence left the Fijians a man short in the forwards through which the Scotties managed eventually to barge over to steal the game.
Fiji had looked like they were headed for a knockout round appointment with Australia on the back of some brilliance from Rupeni Caucaubuca who scorched away for two tries, but were ultimately disappointed as the Jocks stole it a the death.
New Zealand 53 v Wales 37
Who saw this one coming? Certainly not John Mitchell who could not name the Welsh blindside flanker who created havoc through the middle of the All Blacks defence.
Jonathon Thomas (with parents like that who needs enemies?) was joined in mayhem creation by the speedy winger Shane Williams and suddenly the All Blacks looked vulnerable and the Welsh looked a threat.
As the pressure mounted a number of the All Blacks’ big-game players, notably (from hazy memory) Doug Howlett, Aaron Mauger and Richie McCaw stood up, settled the New Zealander’s effort and the All Blacks eased away with three late tries.
A brilliant display of running rugby from both teams.
England 28 v Wales 17 – QF4
History repeating for England after the Samoa match, as Wales, who had looked a distinct threat against New Zealand, pushed the favourites to the limit in this game. Again Shane Williams was to the fore as they built a 10-3 halftime lead.
It amazed many observers that England resorted to bringing Mike Catt – Jonah Lomu’s favorite speed bump from way back in 1995 – into the mid-field.
However Catt’s experience and tactical kicking relieved the pressure from Wilkinson and pinned Wales down in the second half as England ground down their opponents, took control and won through to the semi-finals.
England 20 v Australia 17 - Final
In my opinion, in purely rugby terms, the best of the six finals played up until 2015.
The 1995 final between New Zealand and South Africa had the intense rivalry of the greatest of rugby nations, the drop goal winner late in extra time, and the elation of the new South Africa.
Whilst not having the emotion associated with the reuniting of a nation this match pips the 1995 final as Johnny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal was so deep into extra time that it was just about the last act of the game, Elton Flatley’s penalty to force extra time was (I think) the last act in normal time, there were two very good tries scored (England’s try a spectacular effort by Jason Robinson on the end of a brilliantly worked move using forwards and backs) and the England-Australia sporting rivalry providing a sort of equivalence to the rugby history between New Zealand and South Africa.
England deserved the win and the Cup as they had been the outstanding team in the world for the 3 years leading into the Tournament, but they rode every inch of their experience to get it.
What amazed so many observers was the ability of the Australians to stick with their fancied opponents, particularly as many thought they would be outclassed and out muscled in the forwards.
In many ways, although a loss for Eddie Jones, it was his best moment as a coach. (I wrote that way prior to 2015 … he’s probably bettered that moment …) A week after he plotted the downfall of New Zealand he proved once again that Australia was capable of constructing a sensational performance from a team that was greater than the sum of it’s parts, as seen so often through the 1990s and early years of this century. In cliché form it’s about being a champion team as opposed to a team of champions.
Jones made the most of the assets he had, maximising the Wallabies obvious strengths and creating strengths out of weaknesses. The second of those traits was no more obvious than in the front row. This was expected to be an area of dominance for England, but wily Bill Young did his best to disrupt and (correctly) won the penalty in what would have been the last scrum of the match for Flatley to coolly push the game into extra time.
It was also the finest moment for the soon to be Sir Clive Woodward. He would continue with England and then go on to coach the Lions but the attrition and disintegration of his team following the 2003 RWC would lead to his record being indelibly blotted. This in a lot of ways is unfair as he did create one of the most powerful rugby machines the world has seen. Perhaps he did not have the strength or patience to start that building again from scratch.
Sure, Woodward’s era coincided with England producing some of their finest talent (Johnson, Dallaglio, Hill, Wilkinson etc) all together at the same time, but somebody had to create the team environment and mould them into a cohesive unit.
Back home, as suddenly every soccer fan became an instant rugby expert, England went quite justifiably nuts, while the rugby world started to turn their gazes to the other side of The Channel and RWC VI in France.