Having blown a Grand Slam against Wales, and then against Ireland and Scotland, England went into the Six Nations 2003 knowing they needed to get finally over the line to be considered serious challengers for the Rugby World Cup in Australia later that year.
Neil Back was one of the players who’d borne the scars of those previous near-misses and, as one of the senior members of the group, was determined it wouldn’t happen again. In fact, the all-action openside was so confident, his pre-match match prediction of a 40-6 win almost came right.
A Grand Slam is a special achievement and something that has been achieved 11 times in the Guinness Six Nations. @WelshRugbyUnion— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 13, 2021
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“Before that Ireland game, I vividly remember sitting at the breakfast table on the Saturday morning of the match with Matt Dawson and Simon Shaw and a few more of the good-looking lads. I was an old head then, I was 34, and I looked around and I could feel the pressure building,” said the 71-cap former England and Lions international.
“That’s the worst time in the game week. When you’re training you’re in your zone, when you’re not, you’re thinking of winning, losing, winning, losing … I could feel that and I said don’t worry lads, ‘we’re going to beat them, 40-6.’
“Sure enough, we were 40 points to six up. Jonny (Wilkinson) was off and Grays (Paul Grayson) was on, and he had a conversion kick, right on the edge, and he kicked it to spoil my prediction. Obviously, I wasn’t bothered by that!”
Before the match, the then President of Ireland Mary McAleese had to walk on the grass rather than the red carpet when meeting the Irish team as England were lined up on the wrong side.
England were instructed to move but refused to budge, a show of defiance that showed how pumped up they were.
“The facts are that we didn’t have a clue what the protocol was. We warmed up on that side of the pitch so when we lined up for the national anthems, guess what, we stood on that side of the pitch,” explained Back.
“The ground staff came over and said you’ve got to move over there. Well, we weren’t moving because had we moved, it would have felt like a mental weakness.
“It wasn’t our fault, there were no funny games, we were there to win, and that was it.
“It was meant as no disrespect to her, to Ireland or to the country whatsoever. Had we been told when we walked out, we’d have stood on the other side.”
Cruising home to victory
The final scoreline suggests England walked the match but with only a seven-point lead at half-time, they had to wait until around the hour-mark, when Mike Tindall scored the second of their five tries after an earlier Lawrence Dallaglio effort, to make the result certain. Will Greenwood added two more and Dan Luger went over in stoppage time.
“We were in full control in the second half and, at 60 minutes, we’d built up such a lead that we knew the game was won. But we didn’t take our foot off the pedal, there was never any danger of that after what had happened to us before, and it wasn’t until the referee blew his final whistle that we celebrated.
“Then, there was a bit of relief and a feeling that all the hard work and sacrifice was worthwhile.
“To seal the Grand Slam was fantastic and we felt great.”
Sweeping all before them enabled England to have huge self-belief going into the Rugby World Cup.
“After that French defeat in the third round of the Six Nations in 2002, we started building towards the World Cup. We beat New Zealand, South Africa and Australia and then the big target was the Six Nations.
“We had a word with ourselves and said if we can’t win five games over seven weeks, how are we going to win the seven games in six weeks that we need to do to win a World Cup. We put a big onus on winning the Grand Slam that year.”