Sir Clive Woodward: 'Anyone found compromising should be fined, or sacked...or shot at dawn'

In the latest of our interviews with major sporting figures for whom 2004 was a vital year, Sir Clive Woodward tells Chris Hewett why he is happy to have left England for the Lions

Unlike many grand Olympians of recent vintage - from Tanni Grey-Thompson to Matthew Pinsent and all points between the two - Sir Clive Woodward does not shed tears of triumph. He is too acute an observer to allow his vision to be blurred by emotion. As the head coach of England's rugby team, he watched his players play and train to play for very nearly eight years. He watched them in the gym, he watched them in physiotherapy, he watched them in the dining room, he watched them at their leisure. He even employed a visual-awareness specialist so he could watch them learn how to watch better. For Woodward, seeing is believing - and the more he sees, the more he believes.

It is, then, more than a little surprising that he should have spent the last 13 months not watching the tape of the 2003 World Cup final, 100 minutes of climactic rugby that earned him his permanent place in the hearts and souls of an entire sporting public. He explains it this way. "The final is the one England game I was a part of that I've never looked at since, because I didn't care at the time how we won, just so long as we did, and I don't care now. There is no earthly point in getting cranky about who did what in this or that area of the pitch at this or that moment, and I would get seriously cranky if I looked at it, even at this distance. Why ruin the feeling by analysing the facts? Like life itself, that game was no rehearsal. It was real, and it was everything. I wouldn't have watched it again even if we'd lost and I hadn't understood the reasons why. It was totally an end in itself."

By definition, these culminations do not occur often; there are plenty of people in professional sport - the vast majority, as a matter of fact - who never experience such moments. Woodward and majorities are not natural bedfellows, however. While the common herd are still wondering and imagining and stretching their minds in an effort to capture something of the insider's view of that November night in Sydney, the man at the core of it is preparing for something similar next summer, when the British and Irish Lions tour New Zealand in what remains the single greatest adventure the sport has to offer. In the rugby sense, Woodward deals only in absolutes, and in his considered opinion, this is the last absolute available to him. When the trip is over, he will walk away from union and stay away, perhaps for good.

"This Lions thing could well turn out to be as big as the World Cup, and it is entirely conceivable that the pressure in New Zealand will be even greater than it was in Australia last year," he said during a lunch break in the middle of a Bristol shopping complex. Woodward was heading south to Salcombe, where he has a holiday home situated a couple of hundred yards from the local rugby club. Some months before, he had agreed to run a training session there - "As I had moved in next door, it was the least I could do" - and was delivering on his promise. Salcombe and the Lions, then. Just as in Sydney, all of human life is here.

"You can just about cope with letting down your own country," he continued, warming to his theme, "but letting down three other countries as well would be too much to bear. There again, the possibility of failure on such a scale is what makes the challenge what it is. I realised some time ago that the only satisfaction I take from rugby is at international level - I don't think I'd last more than a few days at a Premiership club - and what makes the Lions so important to me is that it's the final great peak. The Lions have won only once over there, and that was more than 30 years ago, decades before professionalism. And to make it more interesting still, the All Blacks probably have the best coaching team, the most potent brains trust, in their history. Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith? They're so good, it's scary."

Scary indeed. Woodward spent November hopping from one capital of European rugby to another - Rome, Cardiff, Paris - with his notebook and pen, recording every move the All Blacks made on their unbeaten tour. Many of these moves were fresh and inventive, some of them electrifying, all of them performed at a pace a good yard quicker than anything the New Zealanders managed at the World Cup. That alone gives this undertaking an overpowering whiff of the ultimate, yet there is more to the tour than the free-running brilliance of the silver-ferned brigade. What really motivates Woodward is the thought of forcing a reluctant world to acknowledge the superiority of a team from this much-maligned corner of the sporting landscape.

"The southern hemisphere countries weren't at all happy that England won the World Cup, and it was obvious they would redouble their efforts as a result of our success," he said. "It's been happening ever since we left Sydney - anyone with eyes can see it - and without radical change on our part, we run the risk of dropping back into the pack. What are the others doing? That question keeps me awake at night. People rip it out of me for taking 40-odd players and almost 30 support staff on this tour, but I'm only doing what needs to be done. Look at the resources the All Blacks will throw at this, and then tell me we're being extravagant in our planning. This is about us in the British Isles wanting to be the best, whatever the cost."

Whatever the cost. Woodward should have the phrase engraved on his tombstone, for it is the quintessence of everything he has brought to the nation. A self-confessed sporting autocrat, he walked out of the England job with three years left on his contract because the Rugby Football Union could not find a way of giving him the degree of control he felt he needed. "If they had," he said, "I'd have stayed put." The Lions certainly have delivered on the control front, so he is throwing himself into the project with the obsessive, almost tormented abandon of an artist who sees his work in progress as a potential masterpiece. Not to put too fine a point on it, Woodward believes a series victory in July could change for the better the way the British approach and manage their sport across the spectrum.

"In recent years, we've proved to ourselves as a country that we can win on the world stage," he said. "I don't think we always believed it, but we do now. It's not just rugby; other sports - rowing is an obvious example - have contributed heavily to the change of mentality. I meet a lot of people in sport these days who know what it takes to be successful. If we win in New Zealand, the process will accelerate. If we succeed in our Olympic bid, which I support passionately, it will accelerate again. I'd love to think there will come a time when sport is taken as seriously here as it deserves to be, and an Olympic Games might well do the trick. It would be the biggest thing to happen to sport in my lifetime, because it would send us in the right direction, not just temporarily but irrevocably. People would realise that to compromise on something so big would be inexcusable.

"Compromise is the thing that really gets my goat, and I think anyone guilty of doing it should be fined or sacked or shot at dawn. The biggest lesson I learned in my time with England is that those who cut corners don't win, and everything at the élite end of sport is about winning. Second is nowhere. Ask Martin Johnson or Jonny Wilkinson. Ask Steve Redgrave. And how do you finish first rather than second? By appointing leaders capable of making the crucial difference, and then allowing them to make it. Once you're in place, there is no time for talk and no room for trade-offs. This is where I fall out with people, where I become unpopular. But I can handle it, because it's necessary."

Woodward's views were shaped and sharpened by the five years he spent in New South Wales in the 1980s, and his profound regard for the modus operandi of Australian sport will never be diluted. "I love Australian sport and have the utmost respect for it. They totally and utterly overachieve. Why? Because of their mindset, their obsession about being the best at what they do in whatever sporting field they embrace. It doesn't matter if someone is doing weightlifting or judo, or if they're the only person doing it in the whole country. If they show potential, they'll get all the backing they need. They are the model. Compromise is non-existent there, and if we're serious about England winning at world level again - something we've done once in football and once in rugby - or the Lions winning this summer, we must think the same way.

"Did I introduce some of that mindset here? I hope so. I certainly detect a new spirit of ambition, and that pleases me. But we still have too many cup winners and gold medallists who achieved their goals because they said 'sod the system' rather than worked within it, because they knew what was best for them and followed that through despite the governing body rather than because of it. You see, sport is not a business. I've been in business and I understand how it works. In business, you can negotiate and build slowly and plan for the long term, because all of these things will have a drip-feed effect. In sport, we're talking about a small part of someone's life, the few months or years when his or her body can match the demands of performance at the very top of the tree. The Australians understand this completely.

"To my mind, it doesn't matter whether you're trying to win a football match or a 100 metre race. Everything boils down to the same questions: who are your opponents and what are they doing to be the best? Unless you have the support and the resources to answer those questions and act upon the answers, it's hopeless. We're sports nuts in this country; people think the Aussies are crackers about sport, but believe me, they're not in our league. Our problem is compromise. Over there, the person in charge is automatically asked what he or she needs to win a world or Olympic title. I was never asked that. I had to do the asking for everything, and keep chipping away until I got some of it. I never lost my rag or had a head-fit about things; when I'm in business mode, in my suit and tie, I'm pretty controlled and calculating. But it still frustrated the hell out of me.

"My experiences in Australia gave me a crystal-clear idea of what I wanted to do with England. I didn't want to think about grass-roots rugby or the lower national leagues or even the Premiership and what was good for it as a competition. All I saw when I started was a map of the world, with all the great rugby nations staring out at me. I saw the best coaches on the planet - John Hart, Pierre Villepreux, Rod Macqueen - and I wanted to spend my time working out how they were approaching the challenges ahead and coming up with a plan that would be one per cent better than theirs. Instead, I found myself caught up in long discussions I didn't want to have, just because I'd asked for something. I have no great gripe with the RFU, but I expected things to be different after the World Cup victory. The politics ensured they wouldn't be as different as I wanted them to be. That was the reality I faced, and it was [why] I walked away."

Not unreasonably, Woodward believes he left English rugby in better shape than he found it. "The momentum we generated during those eight years will carry on," he said. "Andy Robinson [the new head coach] still has a process to go through, one of making both good and bad decisions, but I believe there was a definite sense of continuity during the autumn internationals, and that was as it should have been. After all, the only person not there in a coaching capacity was me. So often in all walks of life, the leader goes and the thing falls apart. I don't think it will happen with England, and I'm proud of that."

Does he miss it, the cut and thrust of the old job, the day-to-dayness of planning for autumn internationals and summer tours, for Six Nations Championships and World Cups? "The one thing I don't miss," he replied, "is the overt anti-Englishness thing."

Oh, come on. Woodward played the English card for all he was worth during his time at Twickenham, principally because he knew it would get on his opponents' nerves and have them climbing the walls. No one did nationalism better than Woody. Give us a break, for Pete's sake.

"I lived with the dislike, and maybe used it as a positive, because I quickly realised there was no way I could change it," he insisted. "But I can't say I enjoyed all that loathing coming at me in waves. We English are not liked, that's for sure, and we're stereotyped, too. We get called arrogant and all the rest of it, irrespective of how well we play. We can score 40 or 50 points, playing brilliant stuff, but to the rest of the world we're still boring old England, churning out nine-man rugby.

"Yes, I wrapped myself in the flag at times, but most of the provocative things I said in Scotland or Ireland during Six Nations tournaments, or over in Australia and New Zealand, were not really serious. It was part of the no-compromise mentality, and my fellow coaches understood that. I met Eddie Jones [the Wallaby coach who became Woodward's baiter-in-chief in the pre-Test bouts of verbal one-upmanship] for lunch after the game at Twickenham last month and we had a real giggle about all the stuff that went on between us. I treasure my relationship with the other coaches, because there are some serious minds among them. It was other people, a lot of them in Celtic rugby circles I have to say, who got personal about things, and that I did resent because it really wasn't nice. The more successful we became, the more I copped it. The usual banter is fine, but some of the insults were quite heavy. I'm well out of that."

Well out of it in one sense, well into it in another. Woodward is working closely with the Celts now, as any English coach of the Lions is bound to do. "I'm loving it," he said. "There are some terrific people working in British and Irish rugby, and I want them to see me at my best over the next seven months."

As only the best will be good enough, he had better make it happen. Sir Clive has common cause behind him for once, so if he fails in All Black country, it will be no one's fault but his. A perilous position indeed, but the only one he has ever really craved.

SPORTING ASIDES FROM A MEMORABLE YEAR

What sporting moment did you most enjoy in the past year?

"The Ryder Cup. The competition fascinated me long before it started and as it went on I found myself totally drawn into it. The contrast between the two captains was fascinating - Hal Sutton getting smaller as the Europeans kept clocking up the victories, Bernard Langer getting bigger by the hour. I thought the Europeans got it dead right. They approached the challenge in an incredibly professional way right from the off, and can congratulate themselves on a job well done. The Americans got it dead wrong, of course. You can't have people changing clubs a few days before the event, or refusing to practise on a certain day because it doesn't fit in with their routine, and expect to perform well in a team context."

What personal moment made 2004 a special year?

"Being selected as Lions coach. It meant so much, I can't even begin to quantify it. It wasn't a case of someone phoning me up and telling me I'd got the job. I had to deliver a 90-minute presentation, outlining the way I would approach the tour of New Zealand. There were a lot of fresh ideas in that presentation, but my basic principles were non-negotiable. If they had not been accepted by the committee, I'd have had to turn it down. That would have killed me."

What are you most looking forward to in 2005?

The Lions tour, of course, and the thought of taking a break from rugby, for as long as it lasts. I haven't been away from the game since I first started playing seriously in the 1970s. Also, my eldest daughter, Jess, will be leaving school - a big moment for the family. She was 10 when I took on the England job. The time has flown by."

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