How a table-top speech from Bryan Brown got the 2003 Wallabies smiling again

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

FORMER Test lock Justin Harrison has revealed how a stirring table-top speech from Aussie actor Bryan Brown, laden with F-bombs, a few hours after the 2003 World Cup final loss helped the gutted Wallabies feel proud of their effort.

And no-one appreciated Brown’s words more than Harrison, who said he has felt a “burden” of guilt for the loss of 2003 Rugby World Cup due to his missed tackle on England halfback Matt Dawson prior to THAT kick from Jonny Wilkinson.

Speaking with on the 15th anniversary of the epic match at ANZ Stadium, Harrison said he’d long avoided watching the game because it was a painful memory.

Though the 34-Test lock is famous for his lineout steal on debut at the same stadium in 2001, which helped the Wallabies win the third Test and  series against the British and Irish Lions, Harrison carried with him one error from extra time in the 2003 final he felt was crucial.

"I have watched it finally now but it took me a long time to watch the game, particularly because my focus was on myself and some of the mistakes I made during that game,” Harrison said.

"Which was quite sizeable when you look at it. I missed the tackle on Matt Dawson and he ran 15 extra metres and got Jonny in goal kicking distance. Which is a burden, really, because I still think about that and not performing my role for the team. And I am accountable for that.

"But I guess the flip side is I contributed many other positives to that group, and we played a game that we believed was good enough to win. But on the night, it didn’t.

"For a long home it was a memory I was reluctant to have but now with the passage of time, time eases all pains really. 

"Reflecting on it now it was a great time in my life and a group of young men’s lives, that we were able to contribute something together and be successful. 

"I don’t think there is any lasting memory of disappointment about underperformance. 

"Everyone played to the best of their ability and the thing about sport is sometimes that best isn’t good enough at the moment in time.”

While the epic nature of the game has replaced the sharp sting for most of the 2003 World Cup loss for those Wallabies, the raw wounds were very fresh straight after the game when the team gathered at their hotel for a gathering.

Through a friendship with captain George Gregan, famous Kiwi actor Sam Neill and Brown were both at the game and had been invited back to the Wallabies function.

In a guest chapter in Gregan’s biography, Neill wrote about the function: “They were gutted; we were astonished no one was there apart from the Wallabies and their families. No officials, no pollies (no John Howard, of course), no one to say, 'Good on you, boys’.

"I talked sternly to Bryan: 'Bryan you have got to make a speech. Tell them they did good. Get up there Bryan.'

"Bryan protested, 'F*** off! You make a speech. You’re better at speeches than me. Bastard!'

"Bryan was drunk and I wasn’t having a bar of it.

“'Get up there Bryan! You’re the Aussie! Now!'

“Bryan got up on a table, precariously and started.”

Fifteen years on, Harrison stills remembers what came next, and how impactful it was.

"I do remember afterwards at the hotel, it was a funeral feeling and then Bryan Brown was with us and he got up on the table,” Harrison said.

"He said, and it was full of a lot more colourful language that I am going to give you, but he said: “look fellas, we are extremely proud of what you blokes have done, we are Australian together and we all felt united with you. You all should be proud of what you’ve done.” 

"That was the first time, two and a half hours after the game, that I actually felt entitled to lift my head up and appreciate what we had been a part of.”

Gregan’s version in his biography is similarly G-rated and diplomatic, but Neill’s cheekier memory of the off-the-cuff speech differs.

Neill wrote: “The audience went quiet (for Brown’s speech): 'I just wanna say … I just wanna say… you Wallabies are a great f***en team, you play great f***en rugby and we F***EN LOVE YA!’

“It was as good a speech as I have heard."