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A History of Heartbreak – Rugby World Cup 2003

Build up to the 2003 tournament 

The 2003 edition of the tournament was originally planned as another joint venture between Antipodean neighbours Australia and New Zealand. However, political squabbling prior to the of the tournament saw hosting rights withdrawn from New Zealand. As a result 2003 became the first time the Rugby World Cup was hosted by a single country. 

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign that year started well. Comfortable wins away to both Scotland (6-36) and Italy (13-37), as well as a hard fought 15-12 win over France at Lansdowne Road set up a final day Grand Slam decider at home to England. 

That encounter was memorable for the pre-match ‘Carpet-gate’ incident. English Captain Martin Johnson breached etiquette and refused to move his team to the correct position for the pre-match presentation to then President Mary McAleese. This meant that a Brain O’Driscoll led Irish side took up their position off the carpet and on the grass. Unfortunately, the performance on the day from a nervous looking Irish side was poor as a dominant English side comprehensively beat Ireland 6-42.

In the build up to the tournament the loss through injury of Geordan Murphy and Rob Henderson came as a blow to Eddie O’Sullivan’s squad. 

Pool A

Ireland were drawn in Pool A alongside familiar foes – hosts Australia, Argentina and Romania. Ireland had faced all of those nations in the 1999 World Cup, while Namibia were the fifth team in the pool.

11th October 2003: Ireland 45 Romania 17

Ireland enjoyed a comfortable opening round win over the Romanians in Gosford. Tries from Shane Horgan, Keith Wood, Victor Costello and  a brace from Denis Hickie as well as four conversions (Humphreys 3, O’Gara 1) and four penalties from the boot of David Humphreys ensured Ireland picked up a bonus point win. The bonus point system was a new addition for the Pool stages in 2003.

19th October 2003: Ireland 64 Namibia 7

A comprehensive 57 point win for O’Sullivan’s side against tier 2 Namibia in a rain soaked Sydney set a new Irish record score at a World Cup. Alan Quinlan set the tone with the first of ten Irish tries after just 2 minutes, breaking off the back of a maul to score his first of two tries in the game. Eric Miller also grabbed a brace, while Girvan Dempsey, Denis Hickey, Marcus Horan, Guy Easterby, Shane Horgan and John Kelly all got in on the act. Ronan O’Gara added seven conversions. Indeed, but for the slipper conditions caused by the deluge the margin of Ireland’s victory would have been far greater.

The hapless Namibian’s would go on to create some unwanted World Cup history in their final pool game as they fell to Australia by a record margin of 142-0. Surpassing the previous record set in South Africa in 1995 when New Zealand beat Japan 145-17.

26th October 2003: Ireland 16 Argentina 15

Ireland gained a measure of revenge for their 1999 defeat to Los Pumas in Lens with a narrow win over the Argentines in Adelaide. Alan Quinlan’s try midway through the first-half, which came against the run of play, was to be the games decisive score. Keith Wood set up the try after stealing a lose line-out ball and bursting up the field, before off loading to Quinlan who raced over. For the unfortunate Tippearay man it also signalled the end of his tournament. He injured his shoulder in the act of scoring that try. Despite that score Ireland only held a single point lead at the break !0-9. Argentina had two Gonzalo Quesada penalties and a Ignacio Corleto drop goal to show for their first-half efforts. For Ireland David Humphreys had converted the try and also kicked a penalty.

Just before the hour mark a second drop-goal put the Argentines ahead, but two penalties from substitute out-half Ronan O’Gara, who was introduced in the 56th minute, put the Irish back in control.  A third Quesada penalty with five minutes to go brought the margin back to a single point. Plenty of nail-biting ensued, but the Irish held out til the final whistle.

The win for O’Sullivan’s side ensured progress from Pool A, while the result also meant an early return home for an Argentine side who had already lost to Australia by 24-8 in their opening match.  

1st November 2003: Australia 17  Ireland 16

The pool decider was played in front of a partisan home crowd in the Docklands stadium in Melbourne. Eddie O’Sullivan opted to start O’Gara ahead of Humphreys due to the formers impressive substitute cameo in the previous game. Ireland found themselves 8-0 behind after the opening 12 minutes. An early drop-goal from Australia’s diminutive scrum-half George Greegan was followed shortly after by the games first try from flanker George Smith. But Ireland responded positively and battled their way back into contention. Two O’Gara penalties narrowed the gap, a Elton Flatley penalty left the half-time score reading Australia 11 Ireland 6.

Another Flatley three pointer push out the lead again to eight, before a moment of magic from Brian O’Driscoll saw him somehow defy gravity and squeeze over in the corner despite the attention of two Wallaby defenders. O’Gara’s magnificent touchline conversion brought it back to a one point game. Australia responded quickly and added another Flatley penalty, but in the last thirty minutes it was all Ireland. An O’Driscoll drop-goal on 67 minutes reduced the gap to the minimum again (1:25.00 in the video). Shane Horgan almost scored from an O’Gara cross field kick (1:16.00), while O’Gara himself curled a long range drop goal effort just wide of the posts. Humphreys entered the fray for the final quarter of an hour and hit an even later effort just wide to the right of the Aussie posts. But the match winning score never came and a crucial George Smith turn-over at the death allowed Greegan to boot the ball to touch. Top spot in the pool gave the Aussies a quarter-final meeting with Scotland, while for Ireland it meant a meeting with old foes France.

9th November 2003: France 43 Ireland 21

Ireland returned to the Docklands in Melbourne fully of optimism after that strong second-half showing against the hosts. Eddie O’Sullivan’s side had a good track record against the French and had won three of their previous four meetings. However, the French had been impressive in the pool stages and romped to victory in all their Pool B games. Fiji were beaten 61-18 in their pool opener, Japan were dispatched 51-29 by a second string side, they then hammered Scotland 51-9 before their midweek side accounted for the USA by 41-14. 

Ireland were aware of how costly their slow start had been in their last game against Australia. O’Sullivan wanted them to try and set the tempo early on. However, the previous clash had taken a heavy toll on the Irish team and their play lacked the aggression and tempo of a week previous. The French pack got on top and Frederic Michalak  directed the play from an armchair seat. 

Once Oliver Mange crossed for the games first try it was clear there was only going to be one winner in this mismatch. By half-time the game was as good as over, France lead 27-0 by the break and it was clear that the second half would merely be a damage limitation excercise. 

Second Half

Shortly after the restart twenty one year-old Michalak, who was metronomic in his kicking all day, sent over a 42nd minute penalty to increase the French lead to 30 points. It was a sign of how bad Ireland were  when 35 year old prop Jean-Jacques Crenca ran in the fourth French try and at 37-0 after just 48minutes it was in danger of becoming Ireland’s worst World Cup performance ever.

O’Sullivan replaced Ronan O’Gara with David Humphreys after this score. O’Gara later said it was the only game he was ever glad to be taken off in. The change of out-half help Ireland lift their tempo and a great break trough the midfield from Kevin Maggs off a lineout move saw Ireland get their first score of the game on 52 minutes. With renewed impetus after the try Ireland had a sustained period of pressure and this led to a Raphael Ibanez yellow card and another Irish try off the resulting 5 yard scrum. Victor Costello broke off the back and crashed the ball up, Peter Stringer then whipped a quick ball out to Humphreys, who then dinked a little kick behind the French line. Brain O’Driscoll reacted quickest and using all of his speed and dexterity touched the ball down inches before the dead-ball line (1:20:30 in full highlights). With the final play of the game O’Driscoll crashed over for his second and Ireland’s third try after a quick tap and go penalty from Guy Easterby was recycled just short of the line by Humphreys to the on-rushing O’Driscoll who barrelled over to score.

The Irish performance over the last half-hour of the game when they outscored the French by 21-6 only added to the sense of frustration after the game. It was to prove an inauspicious end to the decorated career of Irish Captain Keith Wood who retired after the game. France went on to lose their semi-final to England, who then beat Australia in the final thanks to a Jonny Wilkinson drop-goal in the last minute of extra-time. 

Irish World Cup Squad 2003

Forwards (17)

Simon Best (Ulster/Belfast Harlequins), Shane Byrne (Leinster/Blackrock College), Reggie Corrigan(Leinster/ Greystones), Victor Costello (Leinster/St. Mary’s College), Simon Easterby (Llanelli), Anthony Foley(Munster/Shannon), Keith Gleeson(Leinster/St.Mary’s College), John Hayes (Munster/Shannon), Marcus Horan (Munster/Shannon), Gary Longwell(Ulster/Ballymena), Eric Miller (Leinster/Terenure College), Donncha O’Callaghan(Munster/Cork Constitution), Paul O’Connell (Munster/Young Munster), Malcolm O’Kelly (Leinster/St. Mary’s College), Frank Sheahan (Munster/Cork Constitution), Alan Quinlan (Munster/Shannon), Keith Wood (Munster/Garryowen).

Backs (13)

Jonathon Bell(Ulster/Dungannon), Girvan Dempsey (Leinster/Terenure College), Neil Doak (Ulster/Belfast Harlequins), Guy Easterby (Rotherham), Denis Hickie (Leinster/St. Mary’s College), Anthony Horgan (Munster/Cork Constitution), Shane Horgan (Leinster/Lansdowne), David Humphreys (Ulster/Dungannon), John Kelly (Munster/Cork Constitution), Kevin Maggs (Bath), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster/Blackrock College), Ronan O’Gara (Munster/Cork Constitution), Peter Stringer (Munster/Shannon).

Geordan Murphy and Rob Henderson were original part of the squad, but were injured in the build-up to the tournament.

Origins of the Rugby World Cup

1987 Rugby World Cup

1991 Rugby World Cup

1995 Rugby World Cup

1999 Rugby World Cup

2003 Rugby World Cup


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