Where do you start when you describe the trip of a lifetime? Before the beginning of course... The tournament schedule was studied and after the June matches against the Southern Hemisphere nations by general consensus the form guide dictated that we would breeze through the qualifiers and eventually meet New Zealand in the final. So to the planning of the trip. The first obstacle of persuading the wife that this was a once in a lifetime chance of experiencing the World Cup down under, with the added bonus of England going all the way, was not as hard as I expected and the all clear was relatively painless, although I knew that brownie points would have to be earned! However work commitments would only allow me to be away for three weeks and the tournament would run for six weeks. Dilemma time.
Would I see England crush the minnows in the group stages or do battle with the big guns in the latter stages. I decided to be bold and go for the knock out stages of the tournament. The match tickets were painfully acquired at 2.00am via the Internet over several mornings and plenty of coffee in August. The plane tickets were booked. All was ready. Just sit back and enjoy England cruising into the quarterfinals. The only thing to worry about was whether we would be playing the Tongans or the Welsh.
How wrong I was. The Georgians were a walk over and lulled us into a false sense of security. We all knew the first challenge would come from the South Africans. But why the concern, last time we played them we put 50 points past them. Not this time however, and we could only relax when Will Greenwood pounced on the charge down and punted through to touch down unopposed for the only try of the match. It was then after this match that it dawned on me that somebody was trying to spoil my trip of a lifetime before I even got there. Having watched the two previous games in the sanctuary of my home. I travelled to Hove RFC to watch the game against Samoa, as my son was playing in the minis that day and Alex King had promised to return to his old club and give a few words of advice to the youngsters. I was in my element telling everyone about my trip, safe in the knowledge that now we had beaten South Africa our ¼ Final place was booked in Brisbane and I would be there. The game was so tense I nearly started smoking again! But to my relief I didn’t and somehow we battled through and my dream was still alive. The formalities were done against Uruguay and I was on my way. But wait what is this? Wales are beating New Zealand. Is somebody trying to torture me further? But we are not supposed to play them until the final. Luckily for England Wales rolled over and the prospect of meeting the mighty All Blacks early in the tournament vanished.
My last duty before leaving Blighty was to collect the kids from school and do my fatherly duties of delegating my powers while I was away. Luke you are in charge of the dogs and Jessica you are in charge of Mummy. While picking up the kids from school I bumped into a jubilant John Pope. “Enjoy your break” he said, “because next Monday I will be wearing my red suit to work after Wales have beaten England.” “Not so.” I said, “As lightening can’t strike twice. You Taffies have already had your final.” This comment would come back to haunt me and I can still picture what John would have been like that day if it wasn’t for the inspiration of one Mike Catt.
Before leaving for Australia, my good friend John Laing informed me of a few useful phrases to help me on my way. The most important of which was “Righto”. This was my first word as I passed through customs when I was asked if this was my bag.
I had arranged to stay on the Gold Coast for the first part of my trip with some friends that I grew up with in England. They had decided many years ago to move back to Australia and I have to say that they made the right choice, as it is beautiful there. My parents were also out in Oz to see the World Cup but had decided to play it safe and make sure they saw England in their guaranteed games. We would cross over for several days and take in the ¼ Final against Wales. Dad (Graham Appleton - D. 1952-57) had seen England play in Perth and Melbourne with Harry Bourne (D.54-58) and Rod Langridge (A. 56-61). Then victorious I would move onto Sydney and stay with John Gorton my old rugby mate from School and the OB’s. He is on a three year sabbatical in Australia (a promise he made to Nicole when they got married).
And so to Brisbane and the Suncorp Stadium. The atmosphere was electric. Definitely more English support than Welsh. The game started predictably. Jonny Wilkinson 3 points. But the script changed for the rest of the first half with two welsh tries and this image of John Pope kept creeping into my head. Time for a change and the coach sends out Catt. Too many times in the past Catt has cost us dearly. Has Woodward made the right choice? I look at my Dad and we are both thinking the same thing. Wish it was Beetle (Alex King) taking the field. Unfortunately for Alex, Mike Catt took his place, but fortunately for England he put all his doubters, including me, to the sword and rescued our world cup with a marvellous second half display. We celebrated a little! And the image of John Pope’s red suit soon faded from my mind.
When I arrived in Sydney, World Cup fever had taken off and I must admit I was somewhat excited. John was at work and I had my instructions on how to get to John’s house. Taxi to Circular Quay and then ferry to Manly. “No worries Mate” the taxi driver said and he then proceeded to take me all the way to Manly. Little was I to know now but the next two weeks would hold for me a special experience that I know I will never forget.
John has a great bunch of friends in Manly and I was famously looked after. By day I made John jealous as he was still working and by night we caught up on all the old banter like two old women. It was great to be in his company again. John is the true Brit living abroad. Still wears his speedos and white socks with trainers. Nicole is embarrassed because quite honestly people talk! But between us we managed to persuade him to buy some boardies (Australian for swimming shorts) and some slaps (Australian for flip-flops).
Time unfortunately soon passed and although we would have preferred Ireland we had France to conquer in the Semi-finals. To everyone’s amazement Australia had beaten the Kiwis to reach the final the previous day. Before the tournament I had said to my wife that the ultimate for us was to play Australia in the final. She text me just before the game. “Half the dream is there let’s hope England can do the rest.”
When we left Manly to go to the Telstra Stadium the weather was glorious, sunny and warm. Tee shirts and shorts were the order of the day. By the time the match kicked off the rain was teeming down. “Suits you Poms” was the frequent call. Well let’s face it despite Clive Woodward’s comments that he has been on holiday in France and it also rains there, it certainly didn’t suit the French. England were large and in charge from start to finish despite the fact that we didn’t outscore the opposition again in the try front. We had won and won well. The texts were flying in from England. What’s it like, what’s it like? Only Brilliant was the simple answer. Poor old John had work the next day but I kept him up as long as possible. John did however make the celebrity spot of the day by seeing Graham Henry getting up to leave 10 minutes before the end of the game. We missed the opportunity to ask him why, perhaps he was running to put his application in for the Kiwis job!
The next morning I got up fairly early myself as it was just dawning on me. We have made it all the way. We are in the Final.
John’s house is only minutes from the beach, so the morning after the night before I decide the best cure for my hang over is a swim in the sea. Such a good move as I arrive the same time as half the England Team (their hotel is less than ½ mile from John’s house). I am totally made up. Not only have I seen them win the night before in a foreign country but I am body-surfing with my heroes the next morning on the beach! Obviously I text John to make him jealous.
The build up for the final is pulsating especially as the Australian press hypes matters to the utmost by slating our style of play as boring. They employ the same tactics as 1991 but I am sure that the same mistakes won’t happen twice.
Tom Doig and his father arrive just in time for the Final and put John out of his misery. John has been on tender hooks as Doigy has promised him a ticket for the final and by now they are gold dust. We all catch the ferry to Circular Quay and are in good voice. Everywhere you look is a mass of red and white. I have been going to Twickenham for years to see England play but have never worn the colours. Not so this time. I have purchased the shirt and even kept my promise to my son and have got my face painted with the crosses of St. George. We meet up with all John’s friends at the Ship Inn on Circular Quay to lubricate those pre-match nerves. Everyone is so excited but confident of our ability to win. We also meet up with Jeff Grout (Nicole’s ex boss from England) who is Clive Woodward’s business manager. He has arranged for a company to film a fly on the wall documentary about a supporter’s view of the world cup and they will be accompanying us to the stadium. John is in his element and organises a lineout between opposing supporters. Being the lightest I am chosen to be lifted and on camera we defeat the Aussies two lineouts to nil. This is a good omen and encouraged by our victory we set off for the train to the Stadium. The Wallaby supporters are more than amused with our songs and we are in good voice. On arriving at the stadium the spectacle is something else. The costumes are quite something to see. Everyone has made such an effort. Amazingly there is as much red and white as the green and gold. We make our way to the Rugby Zone to meet up with more friends. I meet up with Jack Hayes (L. 1951-54, Bath - 1959) who is out to see the Final and his son Ian who has lived in Aussie for many years now, and who I am sorry to say is now a turncoat and is sporting the Wallaby colours and an accent to boot. I have met many people in my short trip over here but none more significant than the next fellow I bump into while having another pre-match drink. It makes the term “small world” seem inappropriate. I cannot believe my eyes, it’s Pete Moylan. I was best man at his wedding over ten years ago and have not seen him for a similar time as his wife fell out with me as a result of my best man speech! “Is Mandy here” I ask him. “No” is the answer and we jump for joy. The last time we saw each other was at my brother’s funeral 10 years ago. He lives in Hong Kong now and we both exchange numbers and can’t wait to meet up after the game.
And so to the match. The tension is immense but the splendour of the occasion calms our nerves. The Australians certainly know how to put on a spectacle. The Telstra is buzzing. After the anthems the game is underway. Despite early setbacks we move into half time 14-5 in front and confident that in the second half we will extend the lead. How wrong we were but then we didn’t count on a certain referee called Andre Watson putting his oar in. This was his second and hopefully last World Cup Final as his performance bordered on blatant cheating. England were dominant but with a mixture of the Watson factor and our problems of spilling the ball at crucial moments and Elton Flatley’s undying accuracy the game was pushed into extra time. Even at this stage we still felt confident. Penalties were exchanged and with only a couple of minutes left we were all talking of sudden death extra time and then the deadly drop goal shoot out. But as history will show time and time again with 26 seconds remaining cometh the hour cometh the man. It couldn’t have been scripted better. Boys own stuff. Jonny Wilkinson you certainly are the man. At the final whistle we are jumping for joy. Who to hug first? The stadium blasts out “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. The party does not stop all night and eventually when we get back to John’s house in the early hours we still do not sleep as the game is on the television and we watch it all again. We all can’t believe it yet but we are champions of the world.
The next day Manly is buzzing and we wander down to all the bars on the front near the Manly Pacific Hotel where the team is staying. The first one we go in we bump into Tindall and Balshaw. The grins on all our faces you couldn’t chisel off.
The trip is perfect we have won and we are celebrating with the champions. What more could I ask for. We party all day and all night but unfortunately for John he has work the next day and after a feast of not one but two Aussie pies, he retires to bed to console Nicole!
The experience of Rugby World Cup 2003 for me was more than fantabulous. Even now several weeks after the event and back in Blighty I have a warm glow and many memories that will stay with me forever.
My thanks to the wife for letting me go, and my hosts in the Gold Coast (Bev and Stan Evans) and in Sydney (John and Nicole Gorton) for looking after me. I shall not forget. Happy Days!