It’s fifteen years since England’s great Rugby World Cup victory in 2003. I can still recall that that closing passage of play from the final – the lineout take from Lewis Moody, the break from Matt Dawson, Jonny Wilkinson standing in the pocket and Ian Robertson’s iconic commentary – He drops for World Cup glory. It’s over. He’s done it. Wilkinson's last-gasp effort was all that separated England and Australia after 100 minutes of rugby and a dramatic extra-time finale.
On 22 November 2003, captain Martin Johnson became the first player to lead a northern hemisphere side to the world title. I don’t think I’ve ever shouted at the television as much as I did that day, I think I scared the dog! Here’s what I remember of the game – I’ll confess to watching it at least a couple of times every year since.
The Wallabies started strongly when Tuqiri out-jumped Jason Robinson to a huge Stephen Larkham bomb with just six minutes on the clock, but three Wilkinson penalties soon silenced the home support. In the pouring rain, both sides kept the ball in hand and the England pack began to dominate.
With just 10 minutes of the first half left, Ben Kay knocked on with the try-line beckoning. He’s had the micky taking for fifteen years since – but we’ve all done it with the try line beckoning. Minutes later, England silenced the doubters when Jason Robinson magically scuttled over wide on the left after a powerful midfield burst from Lawrence Dallaglio. ENGLAND TRY! Jason jumps up, cheeks blowing, eyes wide and punches the ball into the air. Queue proper, proper mayhem in our house, bacon butties on the floor, beer spilled, babies ten doors down the street started crying with the noise. The dog decided to leave the room at this point.
The men in white started the second half as they had finished the first. Johnson led from the front with a towering performance and Dallaglio and flanker Richard Hill out thought and out scrapped the Aussies down the middle of the pitch. But just as England looked likely to pull away, two careless penalties allowed Elton Flatley to bring his side back within touching distance.
Lancastrian Will Greenwood knocked on inside the Aussie 22 and Wilkinson missed a drop goal, as the match entered a tense closing quarter. Runs from the powerful Stirling Mortlock and ebullient George Smith pushed England back, and as referee Andre Watson prepared to blow for full time, Elton Flatley slotted his third kick of the half to push the match into extra time.
Wilkinson takes all the plaudits for his performance, but people seem to forget the composure and mental-toughness Flatley had at that moment, ultimately lost in the euphoria of England’s victory, but it was an awesome kick under extreme pressure. Four times Flatley put the ball between the posts, a fine personal game from the inside-centre ultimately on the losing side. But that’s enough sympathy for an Aussie.
Now the players looked exhausted, emotionally and physically gone, and when Wilkinson and Flatley again swapped penalties in extra-time, the match looked to be heading into sudden death. Then, just 38 seconds of extra-time remaining, and everything was going to plan with an England move. Two breaks up field, then a long pass, Dawson to Wilkinson, who shapes up confidently, and with his non-dominant kicking right foot calmly bangs over the match winner. The World Cup winner. England, World Champions.
For the record:
- 6 mins: Tuqiri try puts Australia ahead
- 38 mins: Robinson scores a try after three Wilkinson penalties - England 14-5 ahead
- 80 mins: Australia haul themselves back level with Flatley's last-gasp penalty, 14-14
- 82 mins: Wilkinson's penalty gives England an extra-time advantage
- 97 mins: Flatley strikes again to equalise at 17-17
- 100 mins: Wilkinson's drop goal wins England the World Cup, 20-17
England: J Lewsey, J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; T Woodman, S Thompson, P Vickery; M Johnson; (captain), B Kay; Richard Hill, N Back, L Dallaglio. Replacements: D West, J Leonard, M Corry, L Moody, K Bracken, M Catt, I Balshaw.
Rugby is a physical game – former England hooker Brian Moore once said If you can't take a punch, you should play table tennis – but it’s not all about bashing and brawn, there’s plenty of guile and thought. At the margin, with 38 seconds to go, this win was about composure and planning.
In sport and business, self-control is essential, the capacity to make the right decisions when under pressure is a vital trait. Composure is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. In the frenzy of the storm, holding your nerve, keeping focus and stopping the blood rushing to the head enables you to put your training into practice, and that’s just what England did.
England had a phrase in the 2003 World Cup – T-CUP - Thinking-Correctly-Under-Pressure – for those pivotal crisis moments, taking it from the training ground into the heat of the game. When interviewed after the game, Wilkinson was asked if he’d been nervous, one swing of the boot and England were World Champions? Not really he replied, the last 38 seconds had been six years in the making.
Under Woodward, England had a clear focus on preparation. They had a vision, and worked backwards from that, what did they need to do to be World Champions? Leaving nothing to chance, they prepared for the moment – in the last few minutes of the final, close to the opposition posts, scores level, what’s the move that gives us the opportunity to win?
Watch the video of the move – Johnson, Dawson, Catt and Greenwood all took the planning and learning from the training ground, and with discipline and composure, got the ball to Jonny. The move had been rehearsed many, many times over the last six years, and they made it count when it mattered most.
Without having a direction, your head is filled with what I call a box of frogs leaping around, all sorts of stuff going off all over the place, and you’ve no chance of making the right decision. If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there. It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.
Over the coming weekend I’ll sit down and watch the full match again. England, World Champions. As former England forward Gareth Chilcott once said, you can have a quiet beer, followed by several noisy ones, and that’s what happened in our house fifteen years ago.