Australia 2003 – Rugby for the Weekend

sydney, australia, sydney harbour

Spanish Volleyball or a Rugby World Cup Final in Australia 2003?

Back in 2003 I was doing what I have done for the past 20 years – attending an overseas travel conference. This time it was the conference of midlands based company Kwik Travel and I was staying at the Hotel Elba Sara in Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands, Spain. Naturally I was working hard and if the image below is to be believed, in my spare time I was gracing the soft Spanish sands playing volleyball.

However this trip was a little different in that the Rugby World Cup was taking place down in Australia and with every spare moment an eye was kept on the scores coming in from the land down under.

I remember the conference schedule was adjusted in order that we could all pile into a local Spanish bar to watch the semi final where to everyone’s delight, apart from a few pesky Scots, we put the French to the sword.

Now Max, my old mate from school days – in later years he was to be my best man and I subsequently was his – had been in Oz following England and he had made a last minute decision after that semi final to stay on and chance his luck for a ticket to the final.

Monday 17 November 2003

Sure enough Max got lucky. In fact he got doubly lucky as he managed to secure a couple of tickets to the biggest rugby match in England’s history. The only problem was the tickets were in an office block in Singapore and his mate he invited, that was me, was working at a travel conference in Fuerteventura. What followed was perhaps the craziest week of my life and all of it coordinated through a Nokia 6310 – remember those?

Upon securing the tickets Max dropped me a text – “One More ! I have a spare ticket – you coming?”.  “One More” was reference to Martin Johnson, the captain of England saying to his team after that semi final victory that they now had just one hurdle to overcome – the Aussies in the final in Sydney.

That text arrived mid morning Monday. I was in a conference session probably listening to a presentation on best travel marketing practices which in those days would have included the faxing of offers, the benefits of placing ink smudged 5X1 adverts in national newspapers and how to get the most return from one of 300 pages of scrolling beach holidays on teletext.

Now the game was just 6 days later in Australia so after the initial excitement, reality kicked in as I considered all the elements that I would need to overcome in order to make this the trip of a lifetime.

The first question was “Could I get there in time”? Well I was at a travel conference so I guess I was in the right place to get that answered! Surely there was someone who could get me a flight ticket to Oz for Saturday. Little did I realise that half of the UK was heading to Sydney in a last minute dash to make the game.

Over lunch at La Barca Restaurant in Caleta de Fuste I frantically explained my predicament to the table and it just so happened that fellow volleyball maestro Tracey (a non pesky Scot) from Gold Medal was able to make a call, scribble down an itinerary on the back of a fag packet (well her lunch invite) that I still have to this day and miraculously she secured a flight option.

The only problem was that it involved a rather daunting and somewhat arduous routing that would scare many but not someone who, when he gets the sniff of a major sporting occasion, will almost certainly make the most irrational of decisions in order to attend.

The route that Tracey had offered me as my only chance of getting to the game was departing Fuerteventura in two days – thankfully as the conference was ending…

Wednesday – Fuerteventura – Gatwick (quick change) – Manchester – Dubai – Perth (overnight) – Sydney, Australia
Tuesday – Sydney – Perth – Dubai – Manchester – Gatwick

Once I’d got my head around that, the next hurdle was cost and getting the time off work. With a price of circa £1,200 it was not cheap but a call to the boss soon allayed those fears.

He responded far better to my plea than I could ever have imagined by saying we had enjoyed a fantastic year of sales and this could be my bonus and there was no issue in taking the leave.

I promptly thanked the boss, confirmed with Tracey and told Max to get that golden ticket from Singapore DHL’d and guaranteed as I was on my way!

Tuesday 18 November 2003

The conference continued but there was the matter of a small rugby match on my mind.

Wednesday 19 November 2003

Looking back nearly 20 years I don’t recall the journey from Fuerteventura to Gatwick and then to Manchester too much – I have a recollection of trying in vain to buy some England merchandise at Manchester airport but everything was sold out as most fans had already departed.

At last I could relax on the flight – well that was the plan. I ended up sitting next to Hilary, this wonderful elderly lady whom I even still have a photo of to this day. She had never travelled so far before and was a little nervous so my caring side kicked in and I soon put her at ease with 7 hours of continuous chat even though I was doing myself a favour too as I am not the best flyer myself – yes you heard that right!

One moment always makes me chuckle as I recall her asking me where I was staying and it was only then that it fully dawned on me that I had not booked or even thought about any accommodation – not in Perth or indeed in Sydney – I mean why would you?

Before long we were landing into dusty Dubai, parting company and heading off on our own exciting adventures. I would love to think she is still reciting memories of her trip to Dubai to see her daughter and newly born granddaughter as well that nice bloke she sat next to en route.  

Thursday 20 November 2003

I arrived into Perth late in the afternoon and feeling a little jaded all I wanted was to find an airport hotel and to crash for the night. Actually that’s a lie – I wanted to go into Perth and discover this city on what was my first ever night on Australian soil but yes I was tired and lets face it – I needed to save myself for the next few days.

After a little difficulty and via the airport information desk, a grubby cheap motel about 15 minutes away from the airport was located and booked and I soon got my head down.

Friday 21 November 2003

Having spent most of the night worried that a Huntsman spider the size of a dinner plate was going to appear from behind the stained and rather grim curtains I promptly got the hell out of that grubby motel room and it was back to the airport.

I was booked on the early morning Qantas Airways “red eye” flight to Sydney and I remember reading somewhere that Qantas in all their years had never had a plane crash and were the safest airline in the skies. That turned out to be a reassuring blessing as I recall a pretty nasty storm half way across Australia. We were thrown around at 30,000 feet and as I gripped the arm rests I kept thinking that today would not have been a great day to die – at least leave it till after the game!

The weather continued to be unkind as I arrived into Sydney during another torrential rain storm. I was met by Max and another old pal from college Pete who now lived in Sydney so we jumped in his car, dropped my bag at the hotel in Darling harbour that somehow Max had managed to source and within a couple of hours of landing I was excitedly staring at a match ticket whilst holding an ice cold pint of the amber nectar on a friday night in Darling Harbour looking out across to the Sydney Opera house – I had made it … I was in Australia. Soon after more rugby friends arrived in the shape of Adam and Bernie and we were ready – bring on game day !

Saturday 22 November 2003

With dark skies overhead we enjoyed a somewhat rain interrupted look around Sydney where we bumped into former England player Rory Underwood before a long lunch in Darling Harbour washed down with plenty of liquid refreshment to calm the nerves.

Then we excitedly boarded the train for the Telstra stadium outside of Sydney for the match. Not being able to get any England merchandise at Manchester airport came back to haunt me as I spent the day wearing a ridiculous St George bandana….the things you do !

Without doubt what followed that train journey was one of the greatest rugby matches in history and certainly the best ever final. Favourites England could not build a healthy gap and with a tenacious Australia team levelling the game in the final moments, the game went into overtime.  

As the rain continued to fall and with my body aching, my head pounding, my clothes soaked, my voice gone, Jonny Wilkinson kicked that iconic drop goal that would ultimately secure victory and history was made. Suddenly all those ailments were gone and a party like no other commenced. The Aussies kindly then took the decision to shut the bars in the local area so we headed into town to celebrate long into the night and beyond!

Sunday 23 November 2003

I believe it was 6am and we were queuing in the rain to get into the only open bar in all of Sydney in the seedy Kings Cross area. We were not alone though as I recall laughing at the queue of what seemed like hundreds of deliriously happy yet somewhat exhausted and bedraggled England fans. I mean come on you don’t win the World Cup every year so best celebrate it in style!

After one last beer and the 596th recital of “Oh Jonny Jonny….Jonny Jonny Jonny Jonny Wilkinson” we headed back to the hotel for a quick powernap and a change before going to Bondai or was it Manly beach for a long lunch. It was all a blur…. perhaps if you are still reading this you can tell me the beach below?

Monday 24 November 2003

Monday involved checking out as much of Sydney as we could so to start it was a visit to see the Koalas at Taronga Zoo followed by a stroll around the Sydney Opera house where for some incredulous reason I bought a six foot long carved wooden didgeridoo. That night we checked out some more local hotspots for yet more celebratory beverages and then attended a packed German themed Lowenbrau bar and restaurant for steins of beer, bratwurst and a raucous German band – as if we really needed it.

I recall that evening queuing in the rain (yes it was still raining) to get in a phone box to call home to confirm that I was in Australia and still alive although to be fair I am not sure that was entirely accurate!

Tuesday 25th November 2003

After a brunch discussing the magic of the past few days I was off to the airport, my head hurt, I was tired, it was still raining and I just needed to get myself and my six foot didgeridoo back home which happened to be on the other side of the world.

Sometimes opportunities come up in life which you cannot put a price on and you just have to take. If you don’t you will only have feelings of regret and one thing I have learned is that regret drains the life out of you. Yes with sport it is so often the hope that kills you but these are the moments, win or indeed lose, you will remember for the rest of your life.

Whilst I would never seriously suggest a weekend break to Australia I would always say you should go with your heart.

My boss who kindly paid for the flight used to have a rubber stamp in his office, probably next to his fax machine – it said JFDI – meaning “Just F***ing Do It” – well just like England…. I did and loved every second of my impromptu wet weekend break to Australia.

In fact I loved it so much the same happened again 4 years later …. but more of that for another time….

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