Prior to 2003, England already had a respectable record in the Rugby World Cup, reaching the quarter-final stages in the inaugural tournament in 1987 and again in 1999, finishing in fourth place in 1995 and going down 12-6 to Australia in their first appearance in a Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham Stadium, London in 1991.
In 2003, England completed a ‘Grand Slam’ in the Six Nations Championship with a 42-6 victory over Ireland at Lansdowne Road, Dublin and headed to the Rugby World Cup in Australia as ante post favourites and – as later confirmed by International Rugby Board (IRB) World Rankings, which began during the tournament – the best team in the world. Indeed, England easily topped Pool C with 19 points, including three bonus points, which were introduced for the first time in 2003, and a points difference of +208.
In the quarter-final, England recovered from a 10-3 first half deficit against Wales, thanks in no small part to the boot of fly-half Johnny Wilkinson, eventually winning 28-17, albeit in unconvincing style. Wilkinson, once again, came to the fore in the 24-7 semi-final victory over France, kicking five penalties and three drop goals in a match played in wet, windy conditions.
In the final, England faced hosts, and holders of the Webb Ellis Trophy, Australia, who had scored a surprise 22-10 victory over New Zealand in the other semi-final. England led 14-5 at half-time, courtesy of three Wilkinson penalties and an unconverted try scored by wing Jason Robinson. England dominated possession in the second half, but failed to score and were pegged back by three penalties kicked by fly-half Elton Flatley, including one in the final minute of normal time. With the scores tied at 14-14, the final headed into extra time; Wilkinson and Flatley traded penalties to take the score to 17-17 but, deep in extra time, Wilkinson kicked a right-footed drop goal to win the Rugby World Cup for England, 20-17.