On 22nd November 2003, a deft sweep of Jonny Wilkinson’s right boot sent a 30cm-long air-filled oval sailing between two poles at Sydney’s Telstra Stadium. 26 seconds later, fifteen hulking men clad in green and gold sank to their knees in defeat. England had done it. They had beaten the world champions. They had beaten the most decorated nation in Rugby World Cup history. They had beaten the hosts. But most importantly of all, they had beaten Australia.
To be fair, this was in fact the fifth consecutive victory that Clive Woodward had masterminded against the old enemy of English sport, but all had been tense victories despite the undoubted class of that team. It also didn’t take a hugely long memory to recall that ten of the previous dozen clashes had gone the other way, often emphatically so.
This was not unusual for British sport of the time. Lleyton Hewitt had thrashed home favourite Tim Henman in the semis of the previous year’s Wimbledon, en-route to lifting the trophy. The Aussies had ground out a series victory against the Lions that they had no right to win. The past few Olympics had seen them streets ahead of us in the medals table (latterly boosted by the arrival of human/fish hybrid Ian Thorpe). As a final insult, even the infinitely more talented England football team had just been dismantled 3-1 by Harry Kewell et al at Upton Park.
And then of course there was cricket. As 2003 dawned, Steve Waugh’s boys were just putting the finishing touches to Australia’s 8th consecutive Ashes series win. Indeed since a Chris Broad-inspired England took the urn back to blighty 16 years earlier, Australia hadn’t so much held the Indian sign over the Poms as appeared to have come from another planet in terms of ability.
I grew up in an era when the Australians simply didn’t do sporting defeat. Especially not to the English. From my entire childhood, the image of Rob Andrew’s winning drop goal in 1995 and Nick Faldo’s capitalization on Greg Norman’s nerves the following year were the sole shreds of Anglo-Aussie pride that were afforded to me. This strange country, with its quirky wildlife, big red rock and population a third the size of ours just churned out sporting supermen. They weren’t beaten until there was literally no possible alternative avenue, which didn’t happen all too often.
I had the fortune of meeting a number of players from the 1997 Australian Ashes team, and even at the age of twelve, I remember being shocked at the aura of superhuman confidence that they gave off. England were, bizarrely, actually one-up in the series at the time, however as visiting skipper Mark Taylor stopped outside the nets to sign my tiny, trembling autograph bat, I remember being in no doubt as to what the inevitable outcome of the series would be. Even though that England team contained cherished childhood heroes of mine such as Mike Atherton, Graeme Thorpe and Darren Gough, my consensus of the time was that this was Australia and against them, conventional weapons were of no use.
But all eras musty come to an end. All empires must fall. And in Roman terms, the 2003 Rugby World Cup may have been Australia’s Battle of Adrianople. Suddenly they seemed mortal. Fallible. Beatable.
Since that moment, their “golden generation” of tennis players, which had included Cash, Rafter and Philippoussis in addition to the aforementioned Hewitt, all subsided with no succession plan. England saw them off again in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, while a rampant New Zealand routed them four years later. Then they got thumped by the Lions, becoming the first side to lose a series to the tourists in 16 years. The footballing twin axis of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka retired. In 2008 they suffered the ignominy of finishing below the Poms at the Beijing Olympics, while at London 2012 they collected less gold medals than the county of Yorkshire.
But, somewhat inevitably, the best demonstration of their decline is in cricket. The 2005 Ashes was an epic upsetting of the odds. It seems facetious to say in hindsight, but no team containing Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne (not to mention Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden) should have lost a series to England. This was proved resoundingly 18 months later, when a shambolic touring side was pasted 5-0 in Australia. But what since?
Their legends of the past have faded and been replaced by shadows of themselves. In what world is a 19 year old, with a handful of mediocre first class performances under his belt, a suitable replacement for the greatest legspinner of all time? In what world is Ed Cowan fit to fill the boots of Ricky Ponting or Mark Waugh? In what world can an opening partnership of a 35 year old county journeyman and a walking LBW decision possibly stand up to Langer and Hayden? To Taylor and Elliott? To Slater and Boon?
I’ll tell you. It’s the same world in which Ian Botham morphs into Ronnie Irani before your eyes. It’s the same world in which Graeme Hick received more 2nd chances than a recidivist with a hotshot lawyer. It’s the same world in which Robert Croft, Min Patel, Richard Illingworth and Ian Salisbury battled it out for a token spinner’s slot. It’s a world of Aftab Habibs and Jason Gallians. Of Giddins’ and Afzaals. Of Hollioakes and Hamiltons… Of constant Ashes defeats. This is the world of the 90’s England. The world I grew up in.
It seems strange, but a generation of Australian schoolboys must be raised at the moment in the belief that they are useless at sport. They turn on the game more in hope than expectation. Their team enters World Cups as underdogs and Ashes series looking to save face rather than win. They have little to cheer, save the odd golfing victory or minor sport. Names like Campese and McGrath are ghosts, consigned to the commentary box. In every way we should empathise with their plight. We should feel sorry for them.
But then you just remember the pain they inflicted on your childhood and it’s impossible not to laugh maniacally and wallow in their demise. I’m sorry Australia, I like you really and I know you’ll be back, but you had this coming. Long may it continue.
by Harry Harland