2003 revisited: Kicking up a storm in Sydney

England v France in a World Cup semi-final. Sound familiar? Four years ago the same teams met at the same stage of the tournament, in a match that paved the way for England's eventual triumph. Paul Newman asked those involved to recall a memorable encounter
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The Independent Online

When England met France in the 2003 World Cup semi-finals in Sydney there was no doubting who were the form team. Bernard Laporte's men, inspired by 21-year-old Frédéric Michalak, their brilliant stand-off, had swept through their group matches – they crushed Scotland 51-9 – and reached the last four with a comprehensive 43-21 victory over Ireland. England, in contrast, had yet to get into their stride and had failed to impress in beating Wales 28-17 in the quarter-finals.

Nevertheless, the tide turned England's way the night before the match with the arrival of bad weather. The wind and driving rain did not suit France's running game and played into the hands of England's powerful forwards.

Serge Betsen's try after 10 minutes gave France an early advantage, but the English pack quickly took control and Clive Woodward's team led 12-7 at half-time. Under pressure, the French made repeated infringements, giving away 13 penalties to England's seven. Christophe Dominici and Betsen were both shown yellow cards.

Jonny Wilkinson, growing in confidence, kicked all of England's points (five penalties and three drop goals) in a 24-7 victory. Michalak, his opposite number, was never in the game, from the moment he skied his first kick. He was replaced by Gerald Merceron after 65 minutes.

Nineteen of the 44 players on duty in 2003 have been named for tomorrow's match: Michalak, Betsen, Dominici, Raphael Ibanez, Olivier Milloud, Jérôme Thion, Fabien Pelous, Imanol Harinordoquy, Yannick Jauzion and Damien Traille for France; Wilkinson, Phil Vickery, Ben Kay, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jason Robinson, Mike Catt, Josh Lewsey, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry for England.

Phil Vickery, England Prop

We'd put on a pretty average performance against Wales in the quarter-final. I can remember the crisis meetings going on after that game, whereas France had been ticking along pretty well. We were well aware of the threat they posed.

I remember being on the bus going to the game. There was lightning, thunder, rain, you name it. I remember thinking, "It's not going to be pretty, but let's just try to make the most of what we have." For large parts of the game we were under pressure, but Jonny Wilkinson's penalties and drop goals just kept the scoreboard ticking over for us.

Jerome Thion, France Lock

We talked about the 2003 match on Monday evening, when a small group of players got together. All we said was that we shouldn't have short memories. Before the match we'll all have the memory of 2003 in our minds as a way of motivating ourselves. Playing England always gives you the feeling that you're seeking revenge.

We felt a little humiliated by the way England so dominated us. The weather took us a bit by surprise, though I'm not saying that the result would have been any different if it hadn't rained. We had a lot of trouble putting our game together. England were a team who were on top of their game from the start of the match right until the final whistle, with Martin Johnson the master of his team.

They had us in trouble at every breakdown, every scrum and every line-out. I think we felt a sense of powerlessness against a team who were playing at the highest level.

Paddy O'Brien, Referee

The weather probably spoilt the game as a spectacle. The ball was slippery and England were very clinical in the way they kept the game so tight. They suffocated the French, who were forced to play a style of rugby they weren't used to. In the quarter-finals against Ireland they'd been galloping all over the paddock.

I remember going out on the pitch a while before the game and seeing Galthié and Pelous come out. They took one look at the weather and went straight back in again. The atmosphere in the stadium was brilliant. England had fantastic support. You could see white shirts all around the ground.

The conditions meant that I was pretty busy. I had to referee plenty of set pieces. There were a lot of penalties against the French, but they never complained. They were a well-disciplined team. The two yellow cards were straightforward. Betsen made two late tackles, the second of them on Wilkinson, and Dominici tripped up Robinson after he'd got past him. Dominici went down injured, so I couldn't show him the yellow card straight away, but I think he knew it was coming.

Galthié and Bernard Laporte both thanked me afterwards, as did Martin Johnson and Clive Woodward. Refereeing a World Cup semi-final was the pinnacle of my career and I was happy with my performance. I came off the pitch knowing that I hadn't played a part in the result. As a referee that's what you set out to achieve.

Andy Robinson, England Assistant Coach

Going into the match we had cut down on the amount of training that we were doing. It was a question of empowering the players and it was an occasion when people like Martin Johnson, Will Greenwood and Matt Dawson took the lead. It was tremendous the way the players took control. I don't think I've ever seen a team who were as focused as we were that day.

We knew where France's strengths were. We knew we had to be very strong in midfield. The weather undoubtedly favoured us and we could sense the body language of the French. You always sense a certain mentality with the French. You need to get in their faces and control the ball.

They went in front early on, but we soon started putting points on the board. By the time we got to half-time we were in the lead and from there onwards I was pretty sure that it was going to be our day.

Raphael Ibanez, France Hooker

You can always hark back but does any of it have any significance? I don't know. But it's my worst memory as a player. We had a winning team. The World Cup was ours. It took me weeks to calm down afterwards. It affected me both physically and mentally. The surprising thing is that the memory of that defeat, which led to my retirement from international rugby that year, pushed me to work and regain my place in the national team.

From a personal point of view I've been thinking a bit about what happened that day. I just recall an England team who were very powerful and controlled the match.

It was a sad day and a huge disappointment, but I wasn't left with one lasting image and I don't like referring to it too much. It might give you extra personal motivation, but as far as those who played in the match are concerned it would be wrong to think about it too much.

This weekend might be a question of revenge for some players, but only for some of us. What I want above all is for us to be proud of our shirts after the match, as we were against the All Blacks. England are an even bigger challenge. They're the world champions. We don't want our World Cup to finish this weekend. We're ready to roll up our sleeves and go back into battle.

Lawrence Dallaglio, England Forward

I think we'd struck an important psychological blow in the warm-up matches. We'd played our best team against France at Twickenham and beaten them. We'd played our second-best team against them in Marseilles and only just lost. Mentally we felt very strong going into the tournament.

We'd come off the back of a really poor performance against Wales and were pretty lucky to still be in the competition, but the semi-finals was where we expected to be at that stage. Without sounding blasé about it, we felt that was where our World Cup really started.

France had had an excellent tournament, but until they played us they hadn't really had a contest. Our level went up significantly in that semi-final. It had to, because the French were a very good side. It was probably our best performance of the tournament.

Even Betsen scoring a try early on didn't rattle us. I think Georgia were the only team that didn't score first against us in the entire tournament, so we were used to going behind. Jonny Wilkinson had had a poor match against Wales, but he was man of the match against France. That's the measure of the bloke he is.

I know it was raining, which may have been to our advantage, but it rains everywhere in the world. We dominated them from start to finish. We dominated the scrums and we got to them around the base. We just pulled away from them.

Bernard Laporte, France Coach

In the rain England were better than us. Even in the dry they were better than us. They went on to beat Australia in front of their home crowd. It's certainly true that we made errors, notably in relation to Frédéric [Michalak]. Perhaps he had been under too much media pressure. But even if that hadn't been the case, do you think we would have won? I'm sure that's not the case.

I don't care about history. It's not the same players or the same context this weekend. We mustn't get bogged down in coincidence. We don't care about what France may or may not have done since 1906.

People talk about revenge, but who for? Half of the players weren't there. What has 2003 got to do with Lionel Beauxis? He didn't lose to England then. In 2003 we didn't win because the English were better than us. It was as simple as that. We must stop looking for false excuses.

The error we mustn't commit again is to be second-best on the pitch. Everything else is fiction. The real battle is on the pitch. It isn't fought beforehand or afterwards, it's fought on the pitch for 80 minutes.

It looks as though the weather will be fine this weekend, but if it's not it will be the same for everyone. As for Plan B [if it rains], we'll need to put up high kicks that actually go out of our half, and don't go straight to the England full-back, unlike in 2003. The kicking game is very important at the highest level. You need strong defence and you need territory, but what was it that made the difference in 2003? The kicking game.

Henri Bru, Journalist, L'Equipe

For the French it was a technical failure more than anything else. They were a team that wasn't capable of mastering all the conditions. With the wind and the rain, they weren't equipped to win a match in conditions like that – which England were. If the weather had been fine and the temperature 35 degrees, maybe England's 18-stone forwards would have struggled to get around the pitch. Would France have won if it hadn't rained? We'll never know.

On the day of the match some of the players looked at the weather and said: "It's going to be difficult for us." They were being realistic. They knew they didn't have a great kicker. They had plenty of mobility but they didn't have England's power.

It was tough for Michalak. All of a sudden he was thrust into a position where he needed to be a stand-off with a kicking game, which he doesn't really have. He's a very lively, inspirational player, but suddenly he was thrust into a situation where he had to play a very different game. I don't think it was a question of him buckling under the pressure. Was there any greater pressure playing in a semi-final compared with the quarter-final, when he had been excellent? I don't think so.

I don't think the result has had any lasting impact on the French. It was quickly forgotten. After any match life goes on. I think within three or four days the French were thinking about other things: what they were going to eat, what they were going to drink, what the weather was like.

Four years on: where are they?



Part of current squad


Part of current squad


Retired, now works in media


Part of current squad


Recently left Northampton


Part of current squad


Retired, TV career blossoming


Retired injured, now coaching in Australia


Retired injured, now coaching in France


Part of current squad


Retired in 2005, now pursuing business and TV interests


Part of current squad


Hampered by injuries, still plays for Saracens


Retired, now coach at Leicester


Part of current squad



Currently playing for Biarritz


Part of current squad


Currently playing for Clermont


Part of current squad


Part of current squad


Part of current squad


Retired, now coach at S Francais


Retired, now a coach at Toulon


Part of current squad


Part of current squad


Part of current squad


Part of current squad


Part of current squad


Currently playing for L Irish


Part of current squad