Thomas reflects on epic RWC 2003 encounter
Wales have played out some unforgettable Rugby World Cup matches over the years, and one which will live long in the memory of any Welsh rugby fan is their final Pool D clash against New Zealand at RWC 2003. Despite ultimately losing 37-53, the Dragons produced a magnificent performance against the All Blacks and came close to causing one of the biggest upsets in RWC history.
Wales coach Steve Hansen rested several key players for that match against the All Blacks and gave a 20 year old Jonathan Thomas his opportunity to shine on the sport’s biggest stage. The young flanker took his chance and exploded onto the scene with a spectacular performance that announced his talents to the world. 10 years on from Wales’ heroic efforts that night in Sydney, Rugby World Cup catches up with the versatile back-row forward who tells us how disappointment at RWC 2003 became a turning point for Welsh rugby.
How did it feel to make to make your RWC debut against New Zealand?
Jonathan Thomas: “At RWC 2003 I was a very young player and inexperienced at international level, having only made my debut in June that year against Australia. I wasn't selected for the first couple of matches at RWC 2003 and I remember that feeling of real frustration that comes from being part of such an awesome tournament but not actually being involved in the action. So when I was called up for the New Zealand game I just couldn't wait to play, especially after all those weeks of preparation. Shane Williams was another one who hadn't played much in that tournament, and we were both absolutely raring to go by the time the game against the All Blacks came around.”
What did you make of Wales’ chances going into that game?
JT: “Wales had been on a bit of a losing streak in the 12 months prior to RWC 2003. We hadn’t done very well as a team and people were talking about getting whipped by the All Blacks that day. So the odds were firmly against us.”
With 12 minutes on the clock and only one point separating the two sides, did you believe you could pull off one of the greatest shocks of the tournament?
JT: “We really pulled together as a team that night and put in a great performance, but ultimately it was a disappointing result. It was one of those games that you look back on and think that we probably could have and should have won - and we got agonisingly close. With only 20 minutes to go we were beating New Zealand, but we couldn't hold on and shipped two converted tries in the last quarter.
“We probably didn't believe in ourselves enough because we’d gone into the tournament underachieving. We’d basically got ourselves into a winning position but didn’t have the self-belief or the knowledge ‘up top’ to close the game at the very end. That said, it was an amazing game of rugby and it must have been absolutely brilliant to watch as a spectator. The result against New Zealand set up a quarter-final clash against England, and once again we got incredibly close and could have won, but lost narrowly.”
What positives did you take away from RWC 2003?
JT: “It was somewhat of a bitter-sweet tournament for us, having put in a couple of really good performances against some of the best sides in the world yet only reached the quarter finals. But looking back at that period, RWC 2003 turned out to be a clear turning point in the history of Welsh rugby. It was the year that a really good group of players came together and Welsh rugby has achieved some great things since then.”
With less than two years to go until RWC 2015, what’s the mood like in Wales?
JT: “I’ve not been involved in international rugby for the last 12 months so I’m slightly on the outside of the Welsh camp, but what I can tell you is that there’s a real buzz in Wales about the next RWC. We reached the semi finals at RWC 2011 in New Zealand and have recorded a Grand Slam and a Six Nations Championship since then. There seems to be a feeling in the squad that we could do really well in two years’ time. We do have an incredibly tough group but on the plus side if we do progress from Pool A then we’ll be off to a flying start. RWC 2015 will be a big tournament for Wales and it’s great that Cardiff will be one of the venues. It’s going to be an amazing six weeks for the whole country and I'm really excited about it.”