Celebrating forgotten 2003 World Cup winner who emerged in warm-ups

Stuart Abbott is part of the answer to a pub quiz question after being a support act in the 2003 World Cup final. And the 2003 World Cup winner could not be happier two decades later if he had kicked England’s winning drop goal even if he admits he had a slice of luck getting into the mix.

Abbott, now 45, was one of eight players who did not make the match day 22 for the showdown with Australia in Sydney and, 20 years on, you would expect to him to be bitter or at least slightly sorry for himself. Not a bit of it.

Read more: England Rugby World Cup squad

He has a World Cup winner’s medal, an MBE, went on an open top bus ride round London in front of an estimated 1million people, met the Queen, and then-prime minister Tony Blair. He even got an audience with the Pope, courtesy of Lawrence Dallaglio.

The former Wasps and Harlequins centre along with Mark Regan, Julian White, Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley, Andy Gomarsall, Paul Grayson and Dan Luger had some of the best seats in the house at Stadium Australia on 22 November 2003. They could be described as fringe players but Abbott does not feel like one.

In the lead-up to that match coach Clive Woodward called the so-called spare parts to one side and told them the score.

“Clive was brilliant,” says Abbott, who had played in two pool matches and the quarter-final against Wales. “He said ‘you guys have got a bigger job than the ones in the 22 and playing. You can be negative or upset but are you going to run the moves we tell you to do and show us what Australia are going to do’. He said it was not a 15 or 22-man effort, it was the whole squad and it felt incredibly inclusive – that comes from man management. He did a brilliant job.”

But the octet still had to go through all the pre-match preparations before they were given the all-clear to take their seats and watch Jonny Wilkinson’s extra-time winner in the safe knowledge they wouldn’t be getting on the pitch.

2003 World Cup winner reveals how he made the squad

“We were behind the bench,” adds Abbott. “Mark Regan was next to the bench, and you would have thought he was playing the way he was carrying on. He was hilarious but beforehand we had to be ready in case there was an injury in the warm-up. Until the team runs on you have to prepare as if you are going to be on the bench and involved at some stage. The guys on the day did the job but you felt part of it completely. I heard Regan shouting ‘that’s 100,000 pounds’ but it is all pretty much a blur. It is a feeling of complete pride; I made a decision a long time ago and I am very proud and happy with the way things worked out.”

2003 World Cup winner

Stuart Abbott poses with the Webb Ellis trophy (Getty Images)

That decision Abbott talks about could have turned it into different story completely. Abbott, South African born with an English mother, might have been with the Springboks, but he knocked back a chance to train with Rudi Straeuli’s squad to throw his lot in with England. He debuted in a warm-up game against Wales and didn’t think he would make Australia before fate took a hand ahead of the second of two prep matches against France.

“I had a half-decent game against Wales, but I wasn’t picked for France away,” he explains. “Then Clive picked his best team for France at home, and I thought I wasn’t going to get to the World Cup and I wouldn’t get another chance. Then on the Thursday, Mike Tindall pulled his hamstring and Clive came to me and said, ‘this is an opportunity and I want to give it to you’. It was right time, right place.

“I thought there was no way it was going to happen. Mike Catt was coming back, and he was playing well, and he could play anywhere, and Tindall and Will Greenwood were the incumbents and no one was going to move them out of the way.

“That team had been together for four years plus, building up to the World Cup and I snuck in the back door.”

2003 World Cup winner

Stuart Abbott dots down against Uruguay in the group stage of the 2003 Rugby World Cup (Getty Images)

And with a medal in his pocket, it was on the bus and onto the Dallaglio mystery tour.

“It was unbelievable, it was a once in a lifetime thing,” he says. “Nobody imagined it was going to be that big and it was one of the best days of my life. We went to 10 Downing Street and the Palace, then Lawrence arranged for 10 guys to go and meet the Pope. We went over to Rome, had too many beers the night before, and met John Paul II at the Vatican, it was a fantastic experience.”

Abbott, who is back in Cape Town working for a fuel company and VUSA rugby, a charity supporting township children through rugby, is attending a 2003 reunion in November in London.

And he will be walking through the front door, not sneaking in the back.

Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

By