Rugby World Cup - 2003 Tournament

(IRB.COM) Monday 25 July 2011

Rugby World Cup 2003 captured the imagination of the Australian public, just as the Sydney Olympics had three years earlier, and thousands and thousands of them attended matches across the country, not just in the traditional heartlands of the Game.

A total of 1,837,547 fans saw the 48 matches across 10 host cities with clever initiatives helping to get local people behind the smaller nations, including those born in odd years backing one team and even years the other when Romania faced Namibia in Tasmania.

It was impossible not to know that Rugby World Cup was in town, the only thing missing come the final whistle was a successful defence of the Webb Ellis Cup for Australia, who had been in the unique position as hosts and defending champions.

Australia came pretty close to creating RWC history as the first side to successfully defend the title, denied a third title in four tournaments when Jonny Wilkinson kicked that drop goal in the dying seconds of extra-time to give England a 20-17 victory at Telstra Stadium.

Martin Johnson duly became the first northern hemisphere captain to hold aloft the coveted Webb Ellis Cup after a final which had kept a record crowd of 82,957 on the edge of their seats for 100 dramatic and tense minutes.

Fifty-thousand England fans flocked to Sydney in the build up to the Final, many of them watching the action unfold on a giant screen with the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge as a backdrop, partying the night away thanks to Jonny, Johnno and Co.

A then record 80 countries and territories had taken part in the 162-match qualifying process for RWC 2003 to determine who would join the eight quarter-finalists from the tournament four years earlier on the plane to Australia.

Canada, Fiji, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Namibia, Romania, Samoa, Tonga, Uruguay and USA duly emerged, along with first time qualifiers Georgia, an emerging nation who proved a big hit with the fans even though they would return home without a win.

The 20 teams were this time divided into four pools of five, removing the need for quarter-final play-offs as in 1999, and while the usual suspects progressed to the last eight, the pool stages were not without their moments.

While Australia and England both surpassed a century against Namibia and Uruguay respectively – the Wallabies’ 142-0 win the biggest margin in RWC history with Chris Latham scoring five tries and Mat Rogers 42 points – some matches were much closer.

Australia only edged Ireland 17-16 to confirm top spot in Pool A with the Irish then beating Argentina by a single point to avenge their quarter-final play-off loss in 1999, while Scotland battled past Fiji 22-20 to join France as Pool B representatives in the last eight.

England had won the crunch Pool C encounter with South Africa 21-6 to avoid New Zealand in the quarter-finals, the Springboks bowing out at that stage following a 29-9 loss to the All Blacks and the arrival of Mike Catt off the bench helping the English overcome Wales 28-17.

They were joined in the semi-finals by hosts Australia and France with a northern-southern hemisphere decider guaranteed for the fourth time in five World Cups as traditional rivals went head to head at Telstra Stadium.

It was only the second time Australia and New Zealand had met in a RWC semi-final and, just as in 1991, it was the Wallabies emerging victorious 22-10 with 17 points from the boot of Elton Flatley and a Stirling Mortlock try. 

The other semi-final would also be decided by the boot, Wilkinson scoring all of England’s points with three drop goals and five penalties in a 24-7 victory in the wind and rain which also saw Jason Leonard become the world’s most capped player, surpassing Philippe Sella’s 111 caps for France.