Scotland at the 2003 Rugby World Cup: Quality pack, coached by greats, but somehow things did not go right

The 2003 World Cup was staged in Australia and was the most disappointing for Scotland to date.

We did, as usual so far, reach the quarter-final, but we had done so less than convincingly. Given that the Six Nations that Spring had seen heavy defeats in Paris and at Twickenham and also a 6-36 loss to Ireland at Murrayfield, there was perhaps little reason for optimism. Selection had been inconsistent, especially in midfield. The team was well captained by Bryan Redpath, but the uncertainty was illustrated by the omission from the squad of the New Zealander Brendan Laney who had been rushed controversially into the Scotland team – against New Zealand! – within a few days of his arrival in Scotland in November 2001 and had since played at full-back, wing, centre and fly-half. Confusion might indeed be a better word than uncertainty.

Nevertheless the first two matches against Japan and the USA were won comfortably enough. Neither was a slaughter but there was generally still a vast difference between the International Board countries who were now all professional and the others who might at best have a few in their squad who were playing professional rugby in England, France, Australia or New Zealand.

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Scotland now found themselves up against France, one of the favourites for the Cup. In 1987 and 1995 our World Cup matches against France had been intense contests, the result in doubt until the very end. Not this time. France ran riot, their pack dominant and their halves, Freddie Michalak and Fabien Galthié running the show. And quite a show it was. France scored 5 tries, converted most of them, kicked a few penalties, dropped a couple of goals. In reply Chris Paterson kicked three penalties.

Scottish players look dejected after their loss to Australia in the quarter-final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Pic: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty ImagesScottish players look dejected after their loss to Australia in the quarter-final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Pic: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images
Scottish players look dejected after their loss to Australia in the quarter-final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Pic: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images

Still we could still qualify for the quarter-finals and write off the French match as just one of these days when nothing went right. The match was against Fiji who, like us, had beaten Japan and the USA. So the winner would be in the quarter-final, the loser go home. For most of the game it looked as if Scotland would be homeward bound. Our play was seemingly nervous. At half-time Fiji led 14-6, their brilliant left-wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca having scored two tries, the second a solo effort from well inside his own half. Three penalty goals from Chris Paterson edged us a point ahead. But then two penalties were conceded and kicked. 15-20 down, only a few minutes left on the clock. A Fiji forward was sent to the sin-bin. Scotland kicked a penalty to the corner. Tom Smith, the outstanding loosehead prop broke from the rolling maul to cross the line and ground the ball. 20-20. Paterson calmly kicked the conversion. We had scraped into the quarter-final. Probably no neutral thought we had deserved to win this match.

Few neutrals gave Scotland much chance in the quarter-final against Australia, and probably few Scots who were there did so either. Yet, for the first half at least, we played our best rugby of the tournament, and when Chris Paterson, playing at fly-half with Gregor Townsend in the centre, dropped a monstrous goal from the half-way line, scores were level at the interval.

Australia came away in the second half to win 33-16, but Scotland had some reason to feel hard done by, for the first Australian try followed what seemed a turnover from an obviously offside position, while on another occasion the referee Steve Walsh declined to play an advantage when Kenny Logan was running free on the left wing. Walsh, a New Zealander, was one of those, happily rare referees who rather gave the impression of believing that the crowd had come to watch him rather than the players.

So for Scotland 2003 was a disappointment, a damp squib of a tournament. There was a host of good players on that team with half-a-dozen Lions and a pack full of players of the highest quality: Tom Smith, Gordon Bulloch, Nathan Hines, Stuart Grimes, Jason White and Simon Taylor. It was also the last Scotland team to be coached by Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer, the two greatest names in the history of Scottish coaching. But somehow things never quite went right. They would get worse subsequently, for McGeechan was succeeded as Head Coach by the Australian Matt Williams whose tenure was disastrous, happily however brought to a close before the 2007 World Cup.



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