Rugby World Cup 2003 - the final remembered: 'We just knew we were better than Australia'

In part two of our series to celebrate the 10th anniversary of England's win, three key players from the team, Ben Kay, Matt Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio, reminisce about the final – and 'that' drop-kick

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Chris Hewett: Let's start at the end. When Australia won the World Cup in 1991, their captain, Nick Farr-Jones, said he felt depressed in the dressing room afterwards – that he experienced an "is that all there is?" moment. How long did the euphoria last in 2003?

Ben Kay: I'll tell you exactly how long it lasted for me: 48 hours. When I arrived back at Leicester two days after the final, Dean Richards said to me: "You're playing on Saturday, so you'd better get out there and do some training."

Lawrence Dallaglio: Warren Gatland, our coach at Wasps, was a little more forgiving. He'd been known to enjoy the odd glass himself and he said: "Lawrence, you can have a week off. Use the time to sober up – or at least, partly sober up – because after that we have Perpignan at home and I'll need you."

CH: For those of you who had been around the England squad a lot longer than Ben, did the victory give you the sense of fulfilment you expected?

Matt Dawson: I'd been in the international mix since 1993, but I can't say I saw it as the culmination of a 10-year project. More of a three-and-a-bit year project, if I'm honest. I started viewing the England thing differently from the end of the 1999 World Cup onwards. I think it was only then that I got my head around what a "World Cup attitude" really meant. Before that '99 competition, we'd been totally flogged on the fitness front. It was the management's view then that this would win us the big matches. Afterwards, things became much more calculated, more position-specific. Clive Woodward and his team – Dave Reddin and the conditioning guys, the nutritionists, the skills specialists – concentrated on the detail instead of throwing everything at the wall. We were treated as individuals. I found myself involved in a lot of what I considered to be "selection games". Clive was obviously playing with me: he felt he needed to motivate me by picking me and then dropping me and then picking me again. He chose to be consistent with some players and not with others. He saw that we were all different people and I don't think that had happened before. In comparison, the old fitness programme was a joke.

BK: You speak of the nutritionists. I didn't come into the squad until later, but I remember talking to guys who had been involved in '99 and they said that, at that time, they could hear themselves rattling as they were running around because of all the pills and potions they'd been taking as part of their supplement regime. I think by the time I arrived things had moved on in that area.

LD: I agree with Matt: '99 was a turning point. The big decision made by Twickenham – and it was a very big decision – was to reappoint Clive. We'd had some passengers in the squad in '99 and they never played again, but Clive was retained. The step change came in the summer of 2000 when we went away to South Africa. That was the first England tour when the team felt like a club, rather than a national side. We really bonded and it was a massive moment, beating a major southern hemisphere nation down there. As a group, we came home thinking: "Yes, it's possible for us to go on a bit of a journey from here." That club feeling grew and grew.

BK: I'd agree. When I joined the squad, the environment was extremely welcoming.

LD: Two-thirds of the squad were from Leicester. You had your own club waiting for you when you turned up!

CH: Moving on to 2003 and the tournament itself, were you the fittest side in the competition?

BK: Yeah, and we proved it in the final. The only caveat might be that we thought the gap was bigger than it actually was, but that's part of the psychology of the thing. Matt is right when he says you don't want to be flogged all the time, but some flogging here and there is good for you. I heard an interview with Mo Farah's coach just recently and he basically said: There's all these Kenyans running 20 miles a day and while that kind of training is probably not going to make them the best they can be, Mo has to do some of the really hard stuff because if he gets into a real contest with one of those Kenyans, he wants to be equally comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, if you see what I mean. We'd done all that and as a result, we thought we were far superior to everyone else.

CH: So how were the confidence levels before the final? There had been uncomfortable moments against Samoa, against Wales. Was that preying on you?

LD: For us, the World Cup started with the semi-final against France. I don't mean to be unkind to our previous opponents, but if I'm honest, we expected to be in the last four. There was a complete change in the atmosphere in the camp and we did very little physical work from there on in. It was all about mental preparation. We'd looked a bit heavy-legged during the pool stage, largely because we'd done a shedload of work prior to the tournament. At the business end, we were calmer somehow, more relaxed.

BK: All our focus in the group stage had been on the match against South Africa. Between that fixture and the semi-final we were off our game, but the difference between that England side and any other I played in was that even if things weren't going your way, you never for one second thought: "This isn't going to be our day." I never played in another England team with that level of belief: the conviction that we could play badly – as badly as we played against Wales in the quarter-final, say – and still win. You see it in the current New Zealand team. We had then what they have now.

CH: The scrum-half is at the heart of everything. As the final unfolded, Matt, did you feel the team was in decent shape?

MD: None of us wanted half-time to come. We were absolutely flying. The last 15 or 20 minutes of the first half… whenever we looked at the opposition, we had the impression that they didn't know how to defend against us. We were breaking lines, Lawrence was going off on his arcing runs and almost getting away, the Wallabies were being smashed on the gain line, Jonny was kicking his goals, we had Jason Robinson's try behind us. The interval checked our momentum. It gave the Australians time to regroup and the referee time to reflect on what had happened. Officials assess things, just as players and coaches do, and the Australians are the best in the world at raising issues in the right places. We knew something was likely to change, especially up front, and to an extent we prepared ourselves for it. I would agree with Ben, though: it never felt as though it was out of reach. You play in games sometimes and you think: "No matter how well we perform today, we're probably not going to win this." Sometimes, it goes the other way, as it did that night. I'd been in that England side when we were a dozen points down and never felt worried. It sounds arrogant, but you just knew that when difficulties arose, Martin Johnson would turn to Lawrence and ask, "What can we do in the back row?", or say to Ben, "We need some line-out options", or tell me, "Sort your backs out". He would go out to his lieutenants and say: "Work out the game for us." We had the bases covered.

LD: I think it helped that we'd beaten the Aussies four times on the spin. If we're talking about mental edges, we just knew we were better than them. We'd been to Melbourne the previous June and given them a proper touch-up. But proving you're better under the pressure of a World Cup final… it's a difficult thing. You only have to look at the history of World Cups to understand how hard it is. The All Blacks were clearly the best side in 2011, yet they nearly lost to France in the final.

CH: So did extra-time come as an unpleasant shock?

LD: No, not really. I remember Johnno saying: "Think about it: a 48-match tournament that comes down to 20 minutes of knockout rugby with us involved? We'd have settled for that before the start."

MD: Did Johnno say that? I wasn't listening. I was outside the huddle, looking across at the Aussies and watching them cramp up.

BK: That was where our fitness told. I think our first substitution was on 78 minutes. That tells you a lot.

CH: And so to the last knockings. Talk about "zigzag", the move that won the game.

MD: I'm not sure we actually called it "zigzag", did we?

LD: We called it something different, which we'll keep between ourselves, but it was "zigzag" to Clive and to be fair the move did involve us going one way and then the other as a means of establishing a strong attacking position somewhere in front of the posts.

CH: Who called it? Did it go precisely to plan, even under the pressure of that once-in-a-lifetime moment?

LD: It started under our own sticks, actually. We said: "Let's kick long. Moodos [Lewis Moody], you're the one with the fresh legs, get a chase on and put Mat Rogers their full-back under as much pressure as possible because they're not going to run it back at us from there." The plan was to end up with an attacking line-out in the Australian half, which was exactly what happened.

MD: So I say to Benny: "What's the call?"

BK: Steve Thompson [the England hooker] is standing here, Johnno's standing there and I'm saying: "It'll be on at the back." Thommo? He's not sure, because the Wallabies had done their homework on our line-out and he's had a couple of wobbles throwing in. We'd been preparing for the final over in Manly, and there was this bank of houses above the training ground. We knew the Aussies had watched every one of our sessions. Scott Johnson [the Australian coach then working with Wales] has since admitted that he was in some old lady's house, having cups of tea brought up to him while he followed us going through our moves.

LD: We'd done our homework too, mind you. We had our own tea lady.

BK: That's true, but this was our throw and I knew they'd pile the pressure on us front and middle. So me and Johnno are saying to Thommo: "Go long: it's the easiest throw because there'll be no one there. Even if you throw it at Lewis's stomach, we'll get away with it." What happened? Thommo threw at it his stomach, and we got away with it.

MD: While that was happening, Jonny called the move – and what unfolded from there was almost routine because we'd practised it thousands of times. We'd even done it in games where we hadn't necessarily needed a drop goal, but went through the process anyway so we would know how to do it when it was required. There was a temptation to take a short cut after the first ruck: I don't think I was alone in thinking, "You know what, can we really be bothered to go through a load of zigzags? Let's just give it to Jonny at the quickest possible stage and say, 'Come on, mate'." But everyone was intent on doing their jobs. We all switched into doing things we'd done time after time after time.

CH: Even so, Wilkinson still had to kick the goal off his "wrong" foot. Was that because of the pass he received?

MD: It was a rubbish pass.

CH: Really?

MD: Write it whatever way you want. We won, didn't we?

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