Mental strength: England sink South Africa
In the third part of our series of retrospectives looking back at Rugby World Cup matches to correspond with the weekend’s action, we look back at England's meeting with South Africa in the 2003 pool stages.
Before any tournament starts, certain games in the early stages are earmarked as being crucial to the eventual outcome. The case was no different as England approached Rugby World Cup 2003 as favourites - their pool meeting with South Africa would be a barometer of their chances.
Clive Woodward’s side had cut a swath through the Tri Nations superpowers in the preceding 12 months. Unbeaten against South Africa and Australia since 2000, England added back-to-back victories over the All Blacks in the build-up to the tournament, and were very much the team to beat.
South Africa, by contrast, had endured a poor run in the aftermath of RWC 1999. The Springboks had brought up the rear in the last four Tri Nations, not to mention a clean-sweep of losses on their November tour in 2002, and their big-game temperament was in question as kick-off loomed in Perth.
For Will Greenwood, England’s prolific centre, there was also a personal battle to wage as the game drew closer. Only hours before the off, he learned that his wife was in intensive care following complications with her pregnancy. Just a year earlier, the couple had tragically lost their son shortly after birth. He opted to stay, and in doing so helped turn the tide in a close game.
“We’d had a good run of results against South Africa,” he recalled. “We knew it would be brutal, they’d come after us at Twickenham in 2002 and we’d heard rumours about their World Cup training camp. They had No.10 jerseys on tackle pads, but we were quite a tight side at this stage and we’d been through a lot together.”
The first half was nip and tuck, and finished 6-6. South Africa fly half Louis Koen – now the Springboks’ kicking coach – missed a series of chances from the tee, while England’s Jonny Wilkinson was strangely out of sorts. Koen took a measured approach to the game and his battle with England’s talisman, but his best laid plans did not quite translate once the game got underway.
“It was obviously one of the most important games for us in that World Cup,” he said. “For us and for England it determined who we would play against in the quarter finals. I think I missed a couple of kicks which put a bit of pressure on the side. You need to get the scoreboard to tick over and we didn’t. We played catch-up, which was a difficult thing to do for us.
“In a game like that, you don’t try and compete against your direct opponent. It’s very much a focus on your role in the team as a 10, getting the calls through to the rest of the side and organising the attack. I don’t think I ever tried to compete one-on-one. I’ve got a lot of respect for him [Wilkinson], he’s a very hard worker and I always respect a person like that, who works hard. History speaks for itself, he’s been a champion.”
Make a difference
Another to suffer through the opening 40 minutes was Greenwood, who made an uncharacteristic mistake to put his side in hot water close to their line.
“It was really tight at half time. I made an error, not putting the ball down. Eight hours after that game I was on a flight home, my wife was in intensive care. I’d decided to stay and play, and I think that was the right thing to do, but clearly my brain wasn’t switched on because I made an error that if a 12-year-old made it, you’d shout at them. Kyran Bracken got me out of jail at the base of the scrum, it was right on half-time and I felt ‘make a difference’.”
That’s just what he did at a crucial point in the second half. Koen’s tough evening continued as his clearance was charged down by England flanker Lewis Moody, and Greenwood was on hand to pounce.
“Lewis made the difference, really, with the charge-down on Louis Koen, and then I shinboned it into the dead-ball area,” he remembered. “Perth is amazing, the Subiaco Oval is a cricket pitch. The dead-ball areas were about 600 yards long, so it wasn’t actually all that skillful, I could just have chunked it.
“Because of the charge-down, I was in behind. Everyone thought ‘god, he’s quick’, but I had about 45 yards start on everyone. After that, it wasn’t a procession, but Wilko banged over some penalties and we were pretty comfortable.”
Wilkinson recovered from his early jitters and took control. Having added the extras to Greenwood’s try, he knocked over two penalties and a brace of drop goals to take the game away from South Africa. With a 25-6 victory in the bag, England could have been forgiven for looking ahead to the latter stages, but Greenwood had other things on his mind. He immediately flew home and spent a week at his wife’s bedside.
Back in action
Upon his return to Australia, he took up the charge for the knockouts but remained focused and cautious. England endured a scare against Samoa, which lingered as they were found guilty of fielding 16 players for a period in the game, and were on notice as to the task ahead.
“World Cups are funny things because, as New Zealand will tell you, you can go in as world number one and however much you think you’re prepared for the pressure, it still mounts,” he said. “I know the week after South Africa, Samoa happened and we were behind, the 16th man. Pressure does funny things to you.
“For us, as players, it was never: ‘Christ, we’ve beaten South Africa, we’re in great shape now, we’re going to win this’. It was that we expected to beat South Africa, and we expected to beat them well. We were just rolling on, not looking at anyone else’s results, enjoying ourselves, enjoying the experience.”
That enjoyment was to continue until the final whistle in the tournament, which followed Wilkinson’s dramatic drop goal to beat Australia and take the Webb Ellis Cup to the northern hemisphere for the first time.
South Africa were long gone by that point – beaten in the last eight by New Zealand and later dogged by the Kamp Staaldraad revelations – but their time would come in France four years later.