Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Behind the scenes of the 2003 Rugby World Cup: Former England media manager Richard Prescott on the triumph 15 years later

Posted on 22 November 2018 by Robert Sutton

Saturday 22nd November 2003 is a date that will be forever etched into the memory of England rugby supporters. On a wet evening in Sydney, 15 million people were glued to their TVs as Sir Clive Woodward’s side pulled off a thrilling World Cup triumph against Australia.

A man who was lucky enough to be inside the Telstra Stadium was Richard Prescott, now director of communications at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

At the time, though, he was England’s media manager and joined the RFU in 1997, just before Woodward took over.

He recalled that his first impressions of Woodward were very positive, saying: “He was clearly very passionate about the job, he wanted to do something different with it as the sport moved into the professional era.

“He set up the backroom staff from scratch. John Mitchell — who is now back with England — came in as defence coach.”

Embed from Getty Images

Success was limited early on and England had a particularly rotten tour in the Southern Hemisphere in 1998, where they lost all seven matches, including a record 76-0 loss to Australia.

Prescott said: “Although they lost heavily, the team against Australia featured players such as Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery, so you could see where Clive was heading.

“A lot of guys were injured and by the end of that tour, although we were losing, we were putting points on the All Blacks.”

The World Cup in 1999 — where England were knocked out in the quarter-finals — Prescott described as a bump in the road, but Woodward was allowed time and things quickly changed for the better.

He said: “The November Internationals were hugely exciting at that time. You could see the cycle beginning to turn.

“Twickenham became a fortress against the Southern Hemisphere sides. One of my all time favourites was the 32-31 win over Australia and I think that is shared by many England supporters.

“There was a home win too against New Zealand where Jonah Lomu scored a couple of magical tries, but England still won and we beat South Africa 53-3.”

Embed from Getty Images

Despite winning the Six Nations in 2000 and 2001, England were denied the Grand Slam on both occasions. That changed in 2003 as they completed their first Slam for eight years with a memorable 42-6 win over Ireland in Dublin.

The contest is best remembered for a mix up before kick off where Martin Johnson led England out on the side of the pitch that was normally reserved for the Irish team.

“We had a very good manager at the time who followed the protocols. The Irish President, who was pretty good about it, was introduced to the teams and no offence was intended,” Prescott explained.

“It created an incredible atmosphere at Lansdowne Road and under huge pressure, the boys delivered.”

Embed from Getty Images

England then went on tour in the summer of 2003 and won for only the second time ever in New Zealand and for the first time in Australia.

Prescott has particularly fond memories of the 15-13 win in Wellington. He said: “England had two men in the sin bin, but they defended superbly and Jonny kicked everything. There were a series of scrums, during which Clive sent a message down saying simply, ‘tackle.’”

During the tournament itself, Prescott was responsible for managing all media commitments for the squad. Although England may take a media team comprised of three of four different people to the Japan World Cup in 2019, 15 years ago, it was just him. He was, however, able to count on support from colleagues who were just out in Australia as supporters.

He recalled: “We went from a press pack of 70-90 during the pool stages and for the quarter-final against Wales to 150 for the semi-final and then up to 350 for the final.

“In the week of the final it was 20-hour days. I had a great team that helped me to look after the media. What was really nice was that the vast majority of emails after the tournament were positive.”

Embed from Getty Images

Having topped a pool that featured South Africa, England won a thrilling quarter-final against Wales. Interest was growing back in the UK as rugby, rather than football, began to dominate the conversations in pubs and playgrounds.

More UK journalists flew out to Australia for the semi-final and Prescott said: “Being a sports nut, I knew who the chief sports writers were who normally covered football. We had to balance the big chief sports writers and the rugby writers who had been with us the whole time.”

England advanced to the final with a 24-7 victory over France, while on the other side of the draw, the hosts had beaten New Zealand 22-10.

The final lived up to the hype and 26 seconds from the end of extra time, Wilkinson kicked the most famous drop goal in English rugby history.

Embed from Getty Images

Prescott described a memorable night. “It was phenomenal. I can’t watch it back without a tingle down my spine. I watched the game with the eight members of the squad who didn’t make the matchday 22 and we just went crazy when Jonny’s kick went over.

“One of my funniest memories was that after the game I had to get onto the coach and tell the boys that they still had to honour their press commitments at half past midnight because it was such a late kick off. I got some good-natured abuse.”

England returned home to a country that had fallen in love with the oval ball and 8,000 fans turned up at Heathrow, despite the team landing at 5.40am.

Prescott remembers the flight home fondly. “I put the trophy where the passenger door is as the plane was coming in. It created a lovely shot. I went in the first group with Jonny, Martin and Clive and it was just unbelievable.”

Embed from Getty Images

An open-top bus parade in Trafalgar Square followed along with visits to Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, which Prescott described as a pinch-yourself moment.

While England reached the final again in 2007 — falling short to South Africa — they were eliminated in the group stages of the 2015 tournament, which they hosted. Eddie Jones and the current crop of England players look to continue their progress towards Japan 2019 when they renew rivalries with Australia at Twickenham on Saturday.

Featured photograph/Dave Rogers