Commentating on the day of destiny
November 22, 2013
The class of 2003 © PA Photos
November 22 2003 Sydney, Australia - it felt like a day of destiny and so it proved. Finally, at the fifth time of asking we had a Northern Hemisphere winner of the World Cup.
I had been at all four previous tournaments and had commentated on the previous three for ITV. This was to be a repeat of the 1991 final at Twickenham but the level of expectation was far, far higher. England had ground out a rare victory in New Zealand then followed up with a stunning win in Australia earlier in the year and were the side to beat. That was reinforced in the pool stage when they beat South Africa 25-6 and, although Wales gave them a scare in the quarters, France were despatched effortlessly in the semis so despite Australia's home advantage England were still favourites.
Martin Johnson's team had captured the imagination back in England like no rugby team ever before and we were very aware out in Australia that every club and every pub in the land would be opening at 9.00am. This was likely to be the biggest rugby television audience ever.
It might have been an early start for the fans back at home but in Sydney we had time to kill - kick-off was not until 8.00pm. It was an eerie feeling - I remember even my co-commentator, the former England scrum-half and captain, Steve Smith, normally the chirpiest Mancunian in the world, was wandering around as quiet as a church mouse fretting as if he was about to take the field himself.
I filled the day with my usual pre-match routine. Even though I knew all the players inside out by this stage I spent several hours preparing new match sheets for both teams, highlighting the various statistics in red, blue and green and noting down the personal details that might just add that vital something - all part of getting into commentary mode - before, at last, it was time to leave for the stadium.
The weather was awful - we almost had to cancel Jim Rosenthal's opening link from high on the Sydney Harbour Bridge because of heavy rain and high winds - but by kick-off it had improved to a drizzle. Even that seemed to be in England's favour - they were used to such conditions in the UK and had the stronger pack -or so we thought.
Apart from an early scare when Lote Tuqiri, the towering Fijian wing, took a cross kick high above the diminutive Jason Robinson and opened the scoring with a try straight off the training field everything appeared to be going to plan. Jonny Wilkinson kicked three penalties to put England in front and Robinson showed Tuqiri a clean pair of heels just before half-time for an answering try so England led 14-5 - perfect timing. Surely, with the pack in control they would pull away in the second-half.
Had Ben Kay not dropped the ball when all he had to do was catch and fall over the line Australia would probably have been out of it but they escaped and the match took an unexpected twist as the England forwards began to fall foul of South African referee, Andre Watson.
As a commentator who reckons he knows more than most about scrummaging I was totally perplexed. England appeared to have a clear advantage - Australia were going backwards under extreme pressure - but whenever the scrum went down it was England who were penalised. Aware that my audience was all back in Britain I have to confess I allowed myself a little bias but I remain convinced Watson got it horribly wrong.
Clive Woodward and the hero of the day © Getty Images
Wilkinson's left boot was not working perfectly - he missed three drop goal attempts - but every time Watson penalised England Elton Flatley took full retribution and three second-half penalties brought the score back to 14-14. It was frustrating for the England players and commentators alike.
Wilkinson put England ahead again in extra time but, inevitably, Flatley had the chance to level with a couple of minutes to go and duly levelled the scores - it was a stupendous kicking performance considering the pressure - before Jonny settled it with the right footed drop goal.
I remember the build-up was incredibly clinical and patient - you knew England were looking to give Jonny a drop goal opportunity but the way they manoeuvred him into range was a great piece of rugby. Matt Dawson's break followed by Johnson driving one more time, not so much to make more ground as to ensure it would be Dawson not Neil Back making the pass, was superb. I think we did it justice.
I had a line from an old country western song that went, 'one fist of iron and the other of steel, if the left don't get you then the right one will' tucked away at the back of my mind for just this occasion but, inevitably, in the heat of the moment I forgot all about it - no matter, I'm sure nobody was listening, they were too busy cheering.
It was not the greatest World Cup Final ever - there will probably never be anything to equal the whole South African experience in 1995 - but it was the day when England proved they were, for a short time, the best in the world and no other Northern Hemisphere side has ever been able to say that.
It was also the day when I had the privilege of broadcasting to an estimated 20 million viewers, 85% of the available television audience - I have Jonny's signature over a photo of his kick with the ratings chart below it in my downstairs loo to prove it - still one of my favourite 'I was there' days!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist
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