2003 Rugby World Cup

The 2003 World Cup was hosted in Australia alone after New Zealand was dropped as co-host in a row over ground signage rights. England entered the competition as world number 1 and managed to pull off a tight win in the final despite failing to play to the form they had shown over the previous 18 months.

What was going on in the world in 2003?

  • Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrates during re-entry over Texas, killing all 7 astronauts on board.
  • Human genome sequencing project is completed
  • 500,000 Hong Kong people march to protest Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, which controversially redefines treason.
  • Concorde makes its last commercial flight
  • Saddam Hussein, former President of Iraq, is captured in Tikrit by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division


Film waved fond farewells to Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn and Charles Bronson; Johnny Cash sang his final note. Celebrities with political connections who checked out included Denis Thatcher and Idi Amin. The Art world lost a long term benefactor in John Paul Getty II.

World Cup format

The 8 quarter-finalists from 1999 qualified automatically, with 81 countries competing for the remaining 12 places. The number of pools was reduced to 4 groups of 5 teams, as the IRB mathematicians had worked out their sums. After that it was a straight knockout of 8 teams.


Georgia were the only new boys, in place of Spain from 1999. Unfortunately they were drawn in a pool with England, South Africa and Samoa, and really only had a close match with Uruguay, chalking up 4 defeats out of 4 matches.

Tournament facts and records

  • Top points scorer: Jonny Wilkinson- 113 points
  • Most tries: Doug Howlett and Mils Muliaina (New Zealand) – 7 tries
  • Andy Miller of Japan (yes, really) scored a drop goal from 52 metres in the pool defeat to Fiji, still the longest drop goal in World Cup history

Who should have won but didn’t?

England’s performances were underwhelming, and they had to come from behind to beat Samoa in the pool game and Wales in the quarter-final. Indeed there was controversy in the 35-22 win over Samoa, as Dan Luger came on as substitute before the injured Mike Tindall had actually left the field, which was definitely not cool. The Samoans insisted that there should be no complaint and that this should not detract from what had been a pulsating match.

So it is tempting to look beyond England, perhaps to Australia or New Zealand. In the pool stage New Zealand again looked like world beaters, but were well beaten in the semi-final by Australia 22-10. And although the final went to extra time, England clearly were the better side, leading by 9 points at half time despite Ben Kay butchering a simple score in the corner. The second half scrum penalties whereby Andre Watson gave penalties against the stronger scrum, England, still seem strangely harsh decisions.

Hence, against popular consensus, I will say that the right team one; a team that was ranked as the best in the world before the tournament, which faced a tough pool containing South Africa and Samoa, and which beat all-comers in the competition. It was their good fortune to avoid an on-form New Zealand in the knockout phase.

Wilkinson’s cool-headed drop goal in the last 30 seconds of extra time in the final conveyed a win to the right team. Here it is.

Close matches

There were more close matches than in 1999

  • Argentina 15 Ireland 16 in pool A
  • Australia 17 Ireland 16 pool A
  • Fiji 19 USA 18 in pool B
  • Scotland 22 Fiji 20 in pool B. This match saw a cameo from one of the great Fiji winger, Rupeni Caucaunibuca. "Caucau" had scored in the opening pool game defeat to France, but had blotted his copy book by throwing a hay-maker at French lock, Fabian Pelous. Although he received a yellow card for this, in the aftermath he was handed a two match ban, so he only returned in the final pool match against Scotland. What an impact he made! Unfortunately Fiji were unable to hold on for the win his inspired play deserved. Enjoy it here

  • Australia 17 England 20 after extra time in the final, with Jonny Wilkinson’s famous drop goal preventing the match going into a drop-kicking competition to determine the tournament winner


  • England 111 Uruguay 13 in pool C, with 17 tries, of which 5 were for Josh Lewsey and 13 conversions, 11 for Paul Grayson
  • Australia 142 Namibia 0, with 22 tries, 5 for Chris Latham, and 16 conversions for Mat Rogers

Heroes and villains

Hero: Brian O’Driscoll

In the search to find someone other than Jonny Wilkinson as the 2003 hero, I was reminded of the genius of Brian O’Driscoll. Ireland have performed in disappointing fashion in the 7 World Cups to 2015, and O’Driscoll’s magic is all the more special for being in a losing cause. Here are his performances in the narrow pool defeat to Australia and the quarter-final loss to France.

Villain: Ben Kay

Ben Kay’s World Cup record is exemplary. In 2 tournaments he started in 13 matches and has both a winners’ medal in 2003 and a runners up medal in 2007 to show for his performances. As already seen, the win in 2003 was extremely attritional. But it need not have been so, had Ben Kay caught a simple pass with the try line begging in the first half of the match.

England were comfortably on top and went into half time with a 9 point lead, but it should have been at least 5 points more. The game should have been over as a contest at half time. Ben, you made us all sweat and cost me my finger nails! The villainous drop is at 13m 55sec into these highlights.

Quick facts

  • Winners: England
  • Runners-up: Australia
  • 3rd Place: New Zealand
  • 4th Place: France
  • 5th-8th: Wales, Scotland, South Africa, Ireland
  • Others: Argentina, Fiji, Samoa, Italy, Romania, USA, Uruguay, Canada, Namibia, Japan, Georgia, Tonga

Verdict: good, bad or ugly?

Despite this being the first win for a northern hemisphere side, which gave the tournament a much needed fillip, this was a disappointing World Cup; bad rather than ugly. England won without really playing well. Also, there were several close matches but not really any inspiring upsets, in the way that Samoa had fired up the 1991 and 1999 tournaments.