As he led England into Suncorp Stadium ahead of their Rugby World Cup 2003 quarter-final against Wales, Martin Johnson did not feel quite right.
Johnson had been given a few days off in the build-up to the previous weekend’s win over Uruguay and on the first day of full training for Wales he had tweaked his calf muscle.
The injury was not serious enough to rule the England captain out of the quarter-final but did ensure that he sat out the build-up, and added to his sense that the team might face Wales a little undercooked.
England had arrived in Australia as favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup and, keen to avoid injuries, coach Clive Woodward had rotated his squad during the pool stage.
Having beaten South Africa in the second match of their Pool C campaign, Woodward made seven personnel changes for the third against Samoa and 10 for the meeting with Uruguay. It meant that England’s first-choice XV had not taken the field together since the win over the Springboks — 22 days previously.
“When you look back at it coldly, more than anything we actually hadn’t played that much rugby together. Now, that’s going to sound ridiculous,” Johnson admitted to World Rugby.
“Personally, I tweaked my calf very, very slightly on the first day back to training for the quarter-final and I didn’t train all week because they kept me out.
“It was a weird week because I know I’ve got to play a quarter-final at the end of the week but I didn’t train, so mentally I’m not getting the build-up that you’d normally associate [with a big match].
“A, you’re missing the training but B, the mentality that goes with that. So, I almost felt a little bit disassociated from the game in a way because I hadn’t been on the field training.
“I was not used to not training, and it was a very weird feeling being out on the field.
“I remember getting on the field in Brisbane and thinking ‘this does not feel like a quarter-final — I haven’t got really any edge or anxiety about me’.
“Our second team had beaten Wales comfortably at Cardiff [in February], they didn’t scare us and that’s always dangerous. That’s always dangerous when you go into a rugby game like that.
“You should always be on edge and be aware. And we played like that, we played like we were a little bit disjointed.”
As if to underline Johnson’s point, the usually unflappable Jonny Wilkinson hit the post with an early penalty from what looked a routine angle.
Wales then put together an electric team move that finished with Robert Sidoli breaching the England line, only for the second-row to lose the ball forward before he was able to ground it.
England steadied themselves and began to dominate possession, and after Stephen Jones had struck an upright with a penalty attempt, Wilkinson gave his side a 3-0 lead.
Johnson and his team-mates were now on top but were unable to add to their advantage as Wilkinson missed a drop goal attempt and Ben Cohen kicked away possession from a penalty deep inside the Wales 22.
And the Welsh took full advantage as Shane Williams ran back a wayward Mike Tindall kick to set up a try for Jones. Before the break, England’s deficit would stretch to seven points as Wales captain Colin Charvis dove over from a lineout drive.
“They had good players and they could hurt you, and they had nothing to lose. It was a combination of all those things,” Johnson, who was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011, added.
“The most interesting thing was not the scoreline, coming off 10-3 down because I’d have been confident that we could score points against them. It was actually the physical state, because it was quite humid.
“It almost felt like we’d punched ourselves out a bit, we’d really gone at them in the first half at times.
“We hadn’t been efficient or that good but we’d put some effort into it and coming off I felt pretty drained.”
England fans far outnumbered their Welsh counterparts in Brisbane but as the players ran towards the tunnel, Johnson and his team were suddenly confronted by jubilant red-shirted supporters.
One took aim at Will Greenwood: “The bloke shouts at him, ‘Oi! Rodney Trotter!’… ‘Rodney Trotter, you’re going to win nothing!’”
Johnson was not able to see the funny side of that encounter at the time as he feared his 10-year test career could be about to come to an abrupt halt. “It would have been the biggest disaster in English rugby history easily, by a mile,” he recalled this week.
But England were able to catch their breath at half-time and with Mike Catt introduced in place of Dan Luger, the favourites started the second period brightly.
Barely three minutes after the restart full-back Jason Robinson cut a dazzling line through the Welsh defence that took him from his own 10m-line, past five red shirts and deep into the opposition 22, where he threw the perfect pass for Greenwood to score.
“When we came out it just felt a bit cooler,” Johnson said. “I think we felt revived.
“We scored very, very quickly. That’s where you need guys like Jason Robinson to do what he could do and he did. He made his break and put Will in, and Will’s a good finisher of tries.”
Wilkinson’s touchline conversion drew the scores level at 10-10 and provided a “double blow” to Wales that were unable to fully recover from.
Within eight minutes, Wilkinson had put England into a 16-10 lead and a further three penalties would put the game to bed before a late Welsh rally.
“In hindsight it was very good for us because no one was happy, no one externally or internally was happy with the result and it kept us very much on edge,” Johnson recalled.
“It made France big, big favourites for the following week. People forget that.”
England would beat France in the semi-final, having again fallen behind, before they recovered from an early Lote Tuqiri try in the final to beat hosts Australia in extra-time.