The 2003 Rugby World Cup was staged in Australia, the land of the defending champions; the first time the Rugby World Cup had been defended on home soil. In a modification from the tournament in 1999, the competition consisted of four pools of five competing nations. With every team playing four matches each, the first and second placed in the pool would qualify for the quarter-final stages. In another alteration from tournaments passed, a bonus point system was introduced so that even losing teams had the possibility to notch up a score. One bonus point would be awarded to a team scoring four or greater tries and similarly, one bonus point would be awarded to a team losing by seven points or less.
Of the twenty teams that entered the 2003 World Cup, eight had automatically qualified from the previous competition. Those that had reached the quarter-finals in 1999 progressed via the direct route to the tournament: England, Wales, France, Scotland, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia - who would have qualified by virtue as host nation had they not been the champions in the previous tournament. A record 81 countries battled it out for the twelve remaining places in the 2003 competition, with Canada, the USA, Uruguay, Japan, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Namibia, Ireland, Italy, Romania and Georgia (for the first time) successfully making up the numbers.
Hosts and defending champions Australia kicked off the competition at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney against Argentina. The Australians went on to win the match 24-8 and eventually topped Pool A. Argentina unfortunately could not emulate their form of the previous tournament and did not make it to the quarter-finals. Ireland, who missed out in 1999, instead finished second behind the hosts and progressed to the quarter-finals, meeting the winner of Pool B. Romania and Namibia limped out of the Pool stages both having suffered hefty defeats at the hands of the other three teams.
To be expected, France won Pool B and would meet rival Six Nations team Ireland in the quarter-final. In possibly the easiest of the four pool groups, Scotland finished second to progress to the latter stages of the tournament and meet Australia whilst Fiji, the USA and Japan all faced early journeys home.
Pool C saw heavyweights South Africa and England joined by Samoa and smaller nations Uruguay and Georgia. Newcomers Georgia had a torrid time, conceding two hundred points in their four pool matches. Despite gaining a victory over Georgia, Uruguay conceded a further 55 points more than Georgia. Disappointingly, and surprisingly, South Africa limped through the Pool stage. Although they did notch up 72 points against Uruguay they fell to England and accordingly qualified as the second placed team in the Pool. England topped the Pool and would consequently meet the runners-up of Pool D.
Wales, on the back of a Wooden Spoon-winning effort in the 2003 Six Nations championship, were drawn in Pool D against the ever-dominant New Zealand, Canada, Italy and Tonga. The All Blacks, second in the IRB World Rankings, were favourites to top the group with a maximum win and points haul. Although ranked second in Pool D Wales, on a run of unpredictable performances and having lost to Italy nine months previously in the opener of the Six Nations, looked unlikely to have a triumphant tournament.
New Zealand did of course top the group, and secured a maximum four bonus points. They would meet South Africa in the quarter-finals in a re-run of the 1995 final. Wales finished second in Pool D after a superb display in the pool stage. In their first Pool match against Canada, Wales were twice reduced to fourteen men. Although the Canadians looked strong in periods of the game, Wales gained five tries and secured a bonus point in doing so. With Canada's only try coming towards the close of the game courtesy of Kevin Tkachuk, and in part due to the depleted Welsh side, the scores closed at 41-10. This impressive, though not explosive, start to the campaign boosted morale within the Welsh camp.
Expected to build on their encouraging start, Steve Hansen's men faced stiff opposition from Tonga in their second Pool D game. Tongan pressure was evident from the start during a game in which Welsh indiscipline and sloppy play dominated. Gareth Cooper gained a fortunate try before the half hour mark but further disappointing play from Wales gifted Pierre Hola a touchdown. Slipshod kicking ensued but the substitution of Martyn Williams saw him score a drop goal, taking the score to 20-10 in favour of the Welsh. A try from Tongan captain Benhur Kivalu reduced the deficit but Williams darted over the line soon after. Tonga scored another try 3 minutes before the whistle which reduced the final score to 27-20. Wales, lucky to have attained the win, had almost certainly knocked Tonga out of the pool stages. Although the wet conditions made play a little uneasy, rain - not an uncommon feature in Wales - could not be blamed for the lacklustre performance.
Wales next met Italy who dominated the first-half territory and scored first from a penalty. Mark Jones went over the line for the opening try soon after and two minutes from half-time Ceri Sweeney broke, supported by Williams and Iestyn Harris, sending Sonny Parker over for a try. With the score at the interval at 20-9, the Azzuri resumed strongly and closed the gap to 5 points. Wales looked dangerous on the attack and a third try came from Dafydd Jones. As Harris converted the Welsh had an unassailable 27-15 lead. Though pressure was retained by both sides in this fraught match, no further scoring followed. Wales had secured a quarter-final place before entering their final Pool D match against New Zealand.
Wales, with a depleted side through injury, met one of the strongest All Black combinations that Kiwi coach John Mitchell could have fielded. Joe Rokocoko thundered over the try line in the second minute yet Welsh pressure was immediately put onto the Kiwis; Mark Taylor gained Wales's first try underneath the posts. Rokocoko added a second and two further tries scored by New Zealand saw them with a comfortable 28-10 lead, with bonus point secured, at the half hour mark. However, Wales fought back with passion. After a tremendous break from Shane Williams, Parker scored Wales's second try. Williams tore through the New Zealand defence again and Colin Charvis touched down just before the break - Wales trailed only 28-24. In this brave Welsh comeback their lead was stretched to 33-37 in the second half but Wales would score no more in the match. Two 5 pointers, a penalty and a converted try saw the New Zealanders conclude the victory. With the final score 53-37, the bravery, vigour and exhilaration that interspersed Welsh play somewhat overshadowed this. The Kiwis received a colossal shock from the Welsh performance, despite their inevitable resurgence. This newfound Welsh confidence would not have gone unnoticed by quarter-final rivals England.
During the pool stages of the tournament the Australian media criticised the matches in which the smaller rugby nations were crushed by the superpowers. Examples include Australia's 22-try, 142-0 demolition of Namibia and England's 111-13 defeat of Uruguay. True to form, the quarter-finals were filled with established rugby nations with no shock inclusions.
New Zealand ousted South Africa in the first quarter-final to be staged after a lacklustre performance from the Springboks throughout the 2003 tournament. Scotland were inevitably sent home once more at the quarter-final stage; they lost 33-16 to set up a semi-final between Southern Hemisphere rivals New Zealand and Australia. France gained a 43-21 victory over Ireland; this was the fifth tournament in succession that the Irish had failed to progress past the quarter-final stages.
The remaining quarter-final pitted old rivals England against Wales. England, grand slam winners in the 2003 Six Nations, trounced Wales 9-43 in a World Cup warm-up match. They entered this match as the firm favourites. Further advancement in the World Cup was improbable for Wales but the buoyant Welsh public expected an epic encounter. The match proved to be the heroic spectacle that the tournament and Welsh fans desired.
Wales started off the stronger side and had the run of play for the first half. Jonny Wilkinson's missed penalty in the second minute encapsulated England's shaky form. The half time whistle heralded a 10-3 lead to the Welsh, thanks to a try from captain Charvis. A tension-filled second half ensued in which England recaptured their composure. Jason Robinson shredded the once-unyielding Welsh defence, passing to Will Greenwood who scored England's first try, and last of the tournament. Wilkinson easily converted to draw the score level at ten apiece. Two more penalties from Wilkinson sent England into a six point lead and his boot punished the side with a further three penalties taking the score to 25-10 on the 65 minute mark. Despite a seventieth minute try, scored by Martyn Williams and successfully converted, Wales still needed two scores in the final ten minutes. It was too high a mountain a climb. English saviour Wilkinson sealed Wales's fate, and journey home, with a drop kick in the last minute - a mode of scoring that would prove so vital in upcoming matches.
Wales National coach Steve Hansen could not hide his disappointment not to take the team beyond the quarter-final stages. However, he was quick to acknowledge the great strides that Wales had made as a rugby force during the tournament.
The semi-final showdowns between France and England, and Australia and New Zealand were set. Hosts Australia caused an upset when they beat the Kiwis 22-10 in a game where they never lost the lead. England outclassed France by 24-7 in heavy winds and rain, with all of the home side's points coming from the boot of Wilkinson.
The final line-up saw defending champions Australia against grand slam winning England - it promised to be an exciting and closely fought game. With England leading 14-5 at half-time, Australia set about regaining the lead in the second half. Elton Flatley, in the eightieth minute, sent the ball through the posts to take the Rugby World Cup final into extra time for the second time in the tournament's history. England notched up one penalty in the first ten minute period, whilst the Wallabies matched the effort in the second ten-minute slot. With only twenty-six seconds of the final remaining, Wilkinson, who had dropped-goal in both quarter and semi-final matches, sent the ball over to clinch England's win.
Captain Martin Johnson collected the Web Ellis trophy in Sydney and gained the mantle for England of the first Northern Hemisphere nation to have won the Rugby World Cup. Jonny Wilkinson was the highest points scorer in the competition with 113; he was later named the 2003 IRB World Player of the Year and was voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
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