Where were we one year out?:
Somewhat surprisingly Australia were ranked #1 in 2002 according to Pick and Go. I guess we got a leg up by beating the British Lions the year before and downing the All Blacks a couple of times the same year (including our last away win against them). On the flip side we’d just lost Rod McQueen and John Eales but it wasn’t all doom and gloom just yet.
With McQueen retiring another Brumbies coach, Eddie Jones, took over from as Wallaby coach and his skipper down there, George Gregan was now Wallaby captain. There was still plenty of experience in the squad through the likes of Matt Burke, Toutai Kefu, Dan Herbert, Steve Larkham, Owen Finegan and Matt Cockbain. A sprinkling of some exciting new faces were now also on the scene, Stirling Mortlock and George Smith in particular, would prove key members of the team.
So far that year:
The 2002 season got straight into it and just had two games v France, Australia winning both (29-17 in Melbourne & 31-25 in Sydney) before the Tri Nations kicked off against New Zealand.
The Wallaby team v France, our 2nd test of season and last before the Tri-Nations started:
15 Chris Latham, 14 Wendle Sailor, 13 Matt Burke, 12 Daniel Herbert, 11 Stirling Mortlock, 10 Steve Larkham, 9 George Gregan [c], 8 David Lyons, 7 George Smith, 6 Owen Finegan, 5 Justin Harrison, 4 Nathan Sharpe, 3 Patricio Noriega, 2 Brendan Cannon, 1 Bill Young.
Replacements: Sean Hardman, Rod Moore, Matt Cockbain, Daniel Vickerman, Matt Rogers, Elton Flatley.
- Sean Hardman and Dan Vickerman debuting from the bench
- The week prior high profile leaguies Matt Rogers and Wendell Sailor debuted, alongside young QLD lock Nathan Sharpe.
- Jeremy Paul was injured for this test which saw Hardman called into the squad.
The year ahead?:
In what would be pretty much the norm for the rest of the decade, we beat the All Blacks and the Springboks at home, but lost to them away. The win against the All Blacks came with a late penalty to Matt Burke after a Matt Rogers try earlier got them within striking distance.
The win against the Boks at the Gabba was highlighted by a massive all in brawl with Ben Tune, Harrison and Paul particularly involved. The loss to the Boks in the return game in Jo-Burg was memorable for an amazing Brendan Cannon try set up by a brilliant George Smith run seemingly sealing us the match with seconds to go. Only for the Boks to take the game with a Werner Greef try after full time.
We’d then travel north and beat Argentina, get done by Ireland and England, before finishing with a win over Italy for a rather mediocre finish to the year.
At the start of 2003 we comprehensively beat Ireland in Perth 45-16 and then Wales in Sydney 30-10, before losing to the Poms for the first time EVER at home 14-25. Come the Tri-Nations it got worse as we lost to the Boks in Cape Town and had 50 put on us by the Blacks in Sydney. We would redeem ourselves somewhat with a 29-9 win over the Boks in Brisbane before being outclassed again by New Zealand in Auckland.
New Faces to come:
- Come the 2002 Spring Tour we had a few new faces in the squad. Adam Freier and David Croft won caps off the bench v Argentina, with only Croft making the 03 RWC squad.
- A young Matt Giteau, plucked from club football, would make a painful debut v the Poms, yet would be a prominent player for the Wallabies come RWC time, and play an important role in the final.
- Against Italy Mark Bartholomeauz would make his one and only test appearance from the bench as a late replacement for an injury ravaged side.
- Plenty of new faces in 2003 with Morgan Turinui and Lote Tuquiri debuting in the first game of the season against the Irish.
- In the next test against Wales, Dan Heenan debuted but would not feature again all season.
- Significantly, injuries during the Tri-Nations would lead to the debut of Al Baxter in the last game of the season before the World Cup. He would of course go on to start the RWC final after the dramatic injury to Ben Darwin.
- During the actual tournament, Matt Dunning and John Roe both debuted (their only appearance at this RWC) against Namibia.
Those that missed the boat:
Of the ‘established’ players to miss out on the eventual RWC squad there were:
- Nick Stiles who would play his last game for the Wallabies in 2002 against England
- Dan Herbert’s final match would be one match later against Italy (alongside Barto).
- Steve Kefu wouldn’t make it any further than the first Tri-Nations game against South Africa.
- Injury took down Patricio Noriega and Toutai Kefu, both key players for the RWC, just a game or two prior to the kick off the tournament.
- Owen Finegan was, perhaps, controversially omitted after playing much of the season from the bench, and would not represent his country again.
The 2003 RWC:
The team for the RWC final v England at Testra Stadium on 22/11/03 was:
15 Mat Rogers, 14 Wendell Sailor, 13 Stirling Mortlock, 12 Elton Flatley, 11 Lote Tuqiri, 10 Steve Larkham, 9 George Gregan [c], 8 David Lyons,7 Phil Waugh, 6 George Smith, 5 Justin Harrison, 4 Nathan Sharpe, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Brendan Cannon, 1 Bill Young. Replacments: Jeremy Paul, Matt Dunning, David Giffin, Matt Cockbain, Joe Roff, Matt Giteau.
The story of the 2003 RWC is well known and doesn’t really need repeating. We surprised most by getting into the final with a brilliant win over the All Blacks in the semi-final, thanks to that Morty try. It was our best game of the tournament, both from a tactics perspective and an execution one. Unfortunately it was probably our only passable performance of the cup. Even the final, despite being a memorable occasion and an extra-time thriller, wasn’t the most wonderful example of skill and endeavour.
2011 RWC Learnings:
Personally I believe the most significant learning from this World Cup is that depth is over rated, when it comes to the RWC. In the end it comes down to two, perhaps three games. In 2003 we were bloody average all tournament, brilliant v the All Blacks in the semi, and still came within metres/seconds/whatever of being World Champions. And that’s with, what our 4th choice THP (Baxter behind Darwin, Noriega and Panaho). We didn’t even have Larkham for most of that final. And for some reason we relied on high profile recent league recruits in Rogers, Sailor and Tuqiri, over the likes of Matt Burke, Chris Latham and Joe Roff.
Next year we are in a pool with Ireland, Italy, Russia and the USA. That’s one hard match, against a team that doesn’t travel well. Even if the Paddies lose, we’ll make the 2nd round. We could send our 2nd team in against each of those teams and we’d make the finals. Then, if it goes to plan, we’d play Wales (assuming they come 2nd to South Africa in Pool D). Meh. Another non-traveller of a team. We win that and it’s likely to be South Africa in the semi. In the end it comes down to just winning that one game and we are in the final and, as we learnt from 2003, once you are in the final ANYTHING can happen.
So let’s stop this depth building crap for the 2011 RWC. Let’s just get our best team on the park and start winning today. Is Ma’afu the best THP in Australia now? Is JOC the best wing in Australia now? Is Mumm one of the best locks in Australia now? Is Rocky our best captain now? Let’s stop ‘developing’ these players on the international stage, to get them ready for the RWC and let’s just pick the best players available!