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Voicing a victory: Commentators look back on the RWC 2003 final

25 November 2013

  • Graham Jenkins gets two different perspectives from the commentary box at the RWC 2003 final
  • John Taylor of ITV and Gordon Bray of Channel 7 look back on an enthralling evening
Jonny Wilkinson attempts a drop-goal in extra time 

Photo: Getty Images

They've gone long again...this time it works...Catt...has he protected the ball? He has indeed....Wilkinson right back in the pocket...and Dawson suddenly gets away...Wilkinson is now perfectly in range...that has to be a penalty... he came up the side...again Wilkinson in the place...Jonny Wilkinson...he's done it...it's over.”  John Taylor, ITV, November 22, 2003

John Taylor, ITV, November 22, 2003

It is a decade since England clinched Rugby World Cup Final glory with victory against Australia in Sydney but for many the memory of that triumph remains fresh in the mind – including the two men who were responsible for conveying all the drama to a worldwide television audience of millions.

Veteran broadcaster and former international John Taylor was behind the microphone for ITV in the UK and guided 18m viewers through a roller-coaster ride of a clash while the equally venerable Gordon Bray took on those duties for Channel 7 and an expectant host nation. Graham Jenkins talks to both men about their recollection of the tournament and arguably the most sensational game in World Cup history.

How did you prepare for the biggest game in the sport's history?

John Taylor: “My preparation has always been the same since my first commentating experience as Bill McLaren's second voice and I saw the way he prepared – his famous crib sheets. Even though one knew virtually everything one needed to know having done Australia and England a lot, part of the routine was always to sit down for about four and five hours the day before and prepare a crib sheet and always look for something new. It was all part of the process of freshening yourself up and it is almost what triggers you to get ready for the big game.”

Gordon Bray: “I had called the 1987, 1991 and 1999 finals so had certainly been in that situation before. I think your best calls come in these huge matches come from the spontaneous clashes where the element of surprise really dominates. It brings out the best in a commentator. We had a little ritual in the commentary box with Chris 'Buddha' Handy and Simon Poidevin, two great Wallaby warriors, where we would have a little nip of rum and coke, just to warm the cockles and put us in the right frame of mind for the call.”

What did you think of the atmosphere at the Telstra Stadium?

England fans take in the Rugby World Cup 

Photo: Getty Images

JT: “It was so exciting just walking around Sydney and it had been like that since England's first game in Perth. From that moment it just grew and grew and by the time we got to Sydney it was amazing. I remembered the 1987 World Cup semi-final that they played at the Concord Oval when they couldn't fill the stadium and it was incredible to see how far Australian rugby and rugby in general had come in that period. The enthusiasm in Australia and expectation was fantastic too. You had this banter and rivalry throughout the build-up to the game.”

GB: “It all started for me over in Perth with England playing Georgia and South Africa and seeing the amazing scenes over there The giant inflatable Martin Johnson being paraded through the streets around the Subiaco was unforgettable.This army, this sea of England fans, came like a tidal wave across the Great Australian desert to the eastern side of the country, and there they were in all their glory. They were noisier, they certainly won the battle off the field at the ground and that sort of support put Australia in the shade.

“To see how far world rugby had come and professional rugby had come since 1987 was great with the fact that games in Tasmania sold out and there were sell-out crowds for teams like George, Romania and Uruguay really drove home the point. We were expectant, we knew it was going to be huge but when it actually happened I don’t think we realised how big it was.”

Did you feel the weight of expectation?

JT: “I felt more excitement rather than pressure because I really did expect England to win and you thought that this was really going to be massive. We also had a reporting team back on the ground in the UK so we had feedback as to how excited the people were getting and organising parties and this sort of thing. We had a camera in a rugby club where they had a couple of hundred people and that was typical of what was going on across the nation.”

GB: “We were expectant, we knew it was going to be huge but when it actually happened I don’t think we realised how big it was.”

What sort of contest did you anticipate in the final?

JT: “At that time they were still very hard to beat on their own soil and this was why the England's victory there earlier in the year was fundamental in terms of confidence. I always felt Australia would be good and tough and when they beat New Zealand fairly convincingly you thought – here we go.”

GB: “There was no doubt in my mind that England had been the best side in the world that year and they clinically made their way through to the final – there were no hiccups. I expected them to win but after Australia's semi-final upset of New Zealand we also knew they would really serve it up all the way to England. Two heavyweights would slog it out over the distance and as it happened we went to extra distance.”

Aside from the sensational finale, what sticks in the mind?

JT: “You just felt worried all the way through. Every time you thought England were establishing their dominance up front and were going to use that as the platform for victory and ram it home, they would get penalised. Those penalties were crucial because they were the things that kept bringing Australia back into the contest and you started to think is this going to be one of those dreadful days when nothing comes right.

Lote Tuqiri out-jumps Jason Robinson

Photo: Getty Images

“The absolute moment? Ben Kay had that golden chance, all he had to do was catch the ball and flop over the line and he dropped it. That in the context of a game that was so tight that was the one that would have given them clear water. Huge anxiety in terms of the result, it was a messy game to commentate on because of that. Flatley's final penalty that brought them through to extra time you felt in extra tie then everything can happen – one decisive break, one try and suddenly it is probably all over.”

GB: “When I saw Lote Tuqiri score over the top of Jason Robinson and that sheer mismatch I thought the script was going perfectly to plan. I suppose when Elton Flatley was able to level the scores and take it into extra time and then for him to come back again and level the scores in extra time that was monumental. You really had to buckle up, fasten your seat belts and hang on for the ride.

And the final twist in the tale?

JT: “I remember that final sequence very clearly indeed. I think it was a fantastic bit of rugby from Johnno. It was very funny as it would have been Neil Back making the pass as Matt Dawson had got involved in the ruck and Johnno said to me that it was an absolute spur of the moment thing saying: 'I did not want Backy making this pass!'.

“In terms of commentary, my big regret was that I had a little line that I had been waiting to use for ages and in the heat of the moment I didn’t use it. There is an old song called '16 Tons' and there is a verse in it that goes: “One fist of iron, the other of steel; If the right one don't a-get you; Then the left one will”. I tucked that one away to use when Jonny had a right-footed drop goal but in all the excitement it didn’t come out. Best laid plans and all that.”

GB: “All of the time, I had the feeling there was an air of inevitability and I had a dream the night before that Jonny Wilkinson would kick a winning drop goal and there you go. The way England had rehearsed, the way Jonny had practised, they knew what they had to do to get that drop goal. Everything was meticulously planned right down to the nth degree. When that ball went sailing between the uprights I let the crowd go and let the ball go and then came in with the line - “That surely is England's stairway to rugby heaven.” Had it gone the other for Australia goodness only knows what I would have said. I'm sure the emotion would have bubbled over.”

Were you happy with your performance?

JT: “As a game to commentate on, it was tense it was edgy, I enjoyed it enormously but it did not have the flow to it. It was also quite difficult because you certainly didn’t want to appear biased. If you are doing a Six Nations match then you cant be biased at all, especially as the caller. If you are calling a World Cup in a foreign land and your audience is all UK it is slightly different. You do allow yourself a little more support for England as it was in this game.”

GB: “It's one of the great things about calling live sport. And when you get a big occasion with over 80,000 fans and hundreds of millions of fans watching around the world, to have that sort of sporting theatre and be able to ride the emotional roller-coaster and go with every blow and where possible anticipate and call it accurately is everything a commentary strives for. In that sense it was quite fulfilling.”

How does the game rank in your career?

Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Catt embrace at the final whistle

Photo: Getty Images

JT: “Right up there in terms of drama and favourites. The only one that maybe was above it was 1995 just because that was just so much more than a game of rugby. But it was great to be part of British sporting history, I think that is what you live for and sometimes you dream it is never going to happen. It was an amazing occasion and I have still got a memento in my downstairs loo from Brian Barwick, who was head of sport at ITV, that is a graph of the TV audience figures for the day signed by Jonny.”

GB: “This game is right up there with Australia-France at the 1987 World Cup, Australia-Ireland at the 1991 World Cup perhaps the most dramatic game I have called. And then there was the Australia-New Zealand game in front of a world record crowd in Sydney in 2000.”

Catt absolutely monstered...Waugh and Smith ready to sprint...and Dawson goes himself, he fooled everyone...Wilkinson still in position here...This is England's chance...Back is there...Australia come through...Martin Johnson and England staying composed here...Wilkinson still in place for the drop goal...Australia come back..here it is for Jonny...has he done it...he sure has...heart-breaker for the Wallabies...Seconds remaining and surely that is the stairway to rugby heaven.” 

Gordon Bray, Channel 7, November 22, 2003