England victories over the Southern Hemisphere giants are always cherished occasions but until Sir Clive Woodward took the helm as England coach in 1997, success against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa had been limited at best.

Wins against the ‘Big Three’ were once rare happenings but 20 years ago they came along as frequently as London buses. The Red Rose was blooming under coach Sir Clive Woodward and captain Martin Johnson, with a team building towards the crescendo of the 2003 World Cup triumph.

However, despite the masterplan of Woodward and his assistant coaches Andy Robinson and Phil Larder, all had not gone entirely to plan in 2002. England went into the 6 Nations as Grand Slam winners in 2001 and looked on course for another glorious campaign in 2002.

Typically, in true Gallic fashion, the French had other ideas. In what was a virtuoso display in Paris, ‘Les Bleus’ put on a masterclass with legendary flanker Serge Betsen suffocating, smothering, and hounding Jonny Wilkinson at every opportunity, leaving England no platform to spark their scything back line. The French back row trio of Betsen, Magne, and Harinordoquy were superb, and England had no answer for the mercurial talent of fly half Garard Merceron. The French completed a magnificent ‘Grand Chelem’ in 2002 leaving England second in the 6 Nations table and a summer tour of Argentina to look forward to.

With Woodward opting to leave star stalwarts like Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson at home for a well-earned summer rest before a huge Autumn Internationals Series awaiting in November, England only played one Test match against ‘Los Pumas’. In a side that included younger players like Lewis Moody, Josh Lewsey, Steve Thompson, and Phil Vickery who were still establishing themselves at the time, England completed a solid 26-18 victory in Buenos Aires.

The next time England would play would be at Twickenham, with a visit of the iconic New Zealand All Blacks the formidable prospect for their opening match of the Autumn Internationals in November. This would be the first time England would take on New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa in consecutive weeks and a challenge many commentators’ felt far too tough even for this band of English warriors.

Woodward, Johnson and co had however turned the ‘Old Cabbage Patch’ into a fearsome fortress. Going into the All Blacks game they’d won 15 games on the spin at Twickenham and with a full complement of players to select from, the belief they could achieve something truly special was surging through the squad.

England v New Zealand is a relatively rare occurrence in rugby so when the All Blacks travel to TW2, it’s a huge occasion. This All Blacks team included the likes of Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Carlos Spencer – a simply thrilling back line that could shred any team to ribbons. This would be only their second visit to Twickenham since the infamous 1997 incident in which England hooker Richard Cockerill took it upon himself to stand face to face with All Black Norm Hewett as he performed the Haka.

Lomu at Twickenham

In what was perhaps Jonny Wilkinson’s greatest performance at Twickenham, the man who was cementing his position as the world’s best fly half was imperious. Wilkinson completed the full house – kicking three penalties, two conversions, a drop goal and scoring one of the most memorable tries witnessed at Twickenham. Attacking on the New Zealand 22 metre line, spotting the All Black full back Ben Blair out of position, Wilkinson put in an audacious chip over the New Zealand defence, gathered the ball himself to crash over next to the posts. England held on for a 31-28 victory and their Autumn International campaign had got off to the best possible start.

Could England make it two out of three the following week? Their second game that November pitted them against the Wallabies who many experts believed would pose the biggest challenge for England in 2002. Australia were reigning world champions after victory in 1999, and had clinched a dramatic series win over the British and Irish Lions just the year before in 2001. Packed with a sublime blend of powerful, quick backs and aggressive, dominant forwards, including legends of the game like Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, Matt Burke, and George Smith, beating this Australian team would be no easy task.

England were of course up to it. In what was another thrilling game at Twickenham, England played well but trailed for much of the game. With only five minutes and the score 31-25 in favour of Australia, winger Ben Cohen surged off his right wing to receive a sublime delayed pop pass from James Simpson-Daniel, before carving his way past a pair of flailing Wallaby defenders and diving over the line in true celebratory fashion. With the metronomic Wilkinson not missing a kick that day, he slotted the conversion to take the score to 32-31 and England held on for a monumental victory against their old enemy.

If England were to complete a historic three weeks at Twickenham, their final challenge would be a battle with Boks, but many fans or experts couldn’t have predicted what was about to unfold when the two teams took to the field.

South African is an exceptionally proud rugby nation – the Springboks are well known for wanting to assert their physical dominance wherever possible. Competitive, confrontational, and skilled in equal measure, the Springboks offer a unique challenge for any opponent.

Despite their obvious talent, South Africa also had the reputation of engaging in some of the more cynical, sinister aspects of the game. Even going back to the infamous British and Irish Lions Tours of the 1970’s, Springbok rugby could often overstep the mark with lack of discipline.

In the week leading up to the game, there was clear tension in the air between the two camps. In a team that was undoubtedly talented and included the likes of Breyton Paulse, Johann Van Niekerk and CJ Van der Linde, this Springbok team also included Robbie Fleck, Butch James, AJ Venter, and James Dalton who along with Corné Krige, had all faced a multitude of disciplinary issues.

Upon taking to the field at Twickenham to line-up for the anthems, it was obvious the Boks were charged up for this match, with captain Krige all but foaming at the mouth to get stuck into his English counterparts. With tempers flaring from almost the first whistle, the bully boy Boks had made their intentions clear, and they were going to try and eliminate England’s key players from the game with the use of violence.

After just 11 minutes of the game and the Springboks already having received disciplinary warnings from legendary New Zealand referee Paddy O’Brien, their second-row Jannes Labuschagne shoulder charged Jonny Wilkinson late after a kick and O’Brien had no option but to reach for his pocket. With Wilkinson illegally crumpled on the Twickenham turf grimacing in agony, the highly experienced official produced a red card which was cheered by the throngs that had descended upon Twickenham.

England v South Africa 2002

After the red card, England poured on the pressure and the points. They kept calm and composed and as their lead became unassailable, South African tactics became even more desperate. Staring a record defeat square in the face, in a moment of madness that epitomised the Springboks that day, Corné Krige decided to try and take out scrum half Matt Dawson with a vicious swinging arm. Whilst Dawson was rocked from the impact of this savage blow, Krige also managed to connect with his own team-mate, fly half André Pretorious, who was knocked out cold from the impact and could not continue.

In the midst of the mayhem, England produced some superb moments of running rugby and were the deserved victors, dishing out a record 53-3 drubbing to their Springboks counterparts. For those who cared about the image of the game this was a dark day, as the Boks shamed their proud heritage with their relentless head-hunting, sly elbows, and calculated violence.

Jonny Wilkinson was left with his left arm hung in a black sling to protect a damaged shoulder, Neil Back’s right eye was almost completely shut and even the face of the replacement fly-half Austin Healey carried more than the usual scars of his trade.

International rugby is undoubtedly a physical contact sport and whilst there are legitimate big hits, there are also gratuitous cheap shots and no international touring team in modern times crossed the line as blatantly as the Springboks did back in 2002.

Despite the wounds of war, England had beaten the best of the Southern Hemisphere in three magical weeks at Twickenham. To this day that feat has never been matched and their victory over South Africa was a world-record 18th successive win at a single venue.

The brutality and physicality of the 2002 encounter will never be forgotten and we’re certain this year’s match between England and South Africa will be played in a far better spirit than 20 years ago. Want to see what drama unfolds at this year’s revival of the England v South Africa rivalry? Find more information here.