Sir Clive Woodward: 'I would have done things differently to Johnson'

England rugby guru bemoans World Cup flops but relishes working with hopefuls at Youth Winter Games. Alan Hubbard meets Sir Clive Woodward

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The Independent Online

Having cold-shouldered Twickenham's unseemly scrum, Sir Clive Woodward looks forward to a winter of content, breathing some clean mountain air this week by taking charge of his first team since his glory days as England's rugby overlord, a role he has steadfastly declined to resume amid intense speculation about a return of the messiah.

Instead the architect of a World Cup victory England lamentably failed to emulate last year leads a squad of 24 young people to Innsbruck for the first Winter Youth Olympic Games.

He leaves tomorrow admitting his regret that rugby – "a sport that is in my bones" – is currently held in such opprobrium, the off-field cavorting in New Zealand compounded by Danny Care's recent peccadillo. Which is why, at a time when indiscipline is rife in sport, he is determined that Britain's Olympians, new and old, will be setting examples in what is the nation's most momentous sporting year.

Like their counterparts at the Summer Games in London, where Woodward, the British Olympic Association director of sport, will be deputy chef de mission, the youngsters in Innsbruck – aged 14 to 17 – are subject to a 15-point code of behaviour that includes refraining from swearing in public, obeying dress regulations, keeping noise to a minimum in the Games village at night and keeping bedrooms neat and tidy.

The disciplinary framework has been drawn up by Woodward in consultation with Olympic team leaders and includes stipulations about hygiene, time-keeping and politeness to other competitors. Any partying must be well away from the village and mobile phones have to be switched off at night.

Had Martin Johnson imposed such strictures they probably would have been ignored, though one suspects not so under the Woodward regime, when miscreants almost certainly would have been summarily dispatched to the nearest airport. I ask him if he would have done things differently. "Yes, I like to think I would," he says. "But it's easy to view things from the stands.

"I never had to experience the sort of things that went on there in my years in charge. We were very, very big on discipline, how we operated both on and off the field. It's not just the obvious areas of drinking and partying, it's all sorts of things.

"I would have sat down with them as individuals and then as a team, looked them straight in the eye and said, 'How do you want to be remembered?' I know how I want to be remembered, and that's for being on the back pages rather than the front pages.

"I can think of nothing worse than being remembered for doing something inappropriate that would affect the performance of a team-mate or another athlete. It will be with you for the rest of your life.

"With the Olympic sports we are going to make sure nothing like this happens. We want to be known for what occurs in the arena, not out of it."

He says he had no contact with Johnson – who he had said would be "mad" to take charge of England without top-level coaching experience – at the World Cup, other than a couple of good-luck messages. "Johno did it his own way, as every coach does. I am not saying the way I did it was right or wrong, but it would have been different. OK, I was successful, but it would be wrong to say that was the blueprint. But you are judged on results off the pitch as well as on it and you have to get that right. Sadly Martin didn't, and clearly became badly unstuck."

So is Stuart Lancaster a good choice to take temporary charge? "The situation they got into, he's the only choice. You wish him well. He's got a great opportunity and I just hope he picks the team that every England fan says, 'Wow, I am looking forward to watching this'. Look, it's been a rotten period for rugby, but I sit on the board of Leicester Tigers and I think the game as a whole is still going pretty well. England just had a bad year. But I think we will come through it."

Meanwhile, Woodward has more mountains to climb, starting next weekend in the Austrian Alps. The slopes are not an unfamiliar terrain. He is an experienced skier and his eldest son, Joe, is a qualified ski instructor. "I am passionate about winter sports and that's why I have been chosen to be in charge of the team. It's very challenging because traditionally we are not a winter sports nation, although we have won gold medals in indoor events like skating and curling. But we have some talented young athletes now who have based themselves abroad. This is why the Youth Games are important. I have spoken to these kids and the excitement is huge. It could be the trigger to get winter sports going a bit here."

The squad includes the 16-year-old freestyle skier Katie Summerhayes in the ski half-pipe, an event which makes its debut at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Bobsleigher Jazmin Sawyers has represented Britain at athletics, and cross-country skier Scott Dixon is the son of six-time Olympic biathlete Mike Dixon. Two ice hockey players, Lewis Hook and Katharine Gale, will participate in a unique individual event to test skills at the game.

While he maintains "I am a rugby man and always will be", Woodward has clearly caught the Olympic bug. "One of the reasons I enjoy doing this job is that I was extremely lucky in coaching England's rugby team for seven years and worked with what I call 'gold medal league' players like Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson. Had they been Olympians, they would have won gold medals. And the Chris Hoys, the Rebecca Adlingtons and the Vicky Pendletons, they are no different.

"That's what I find so fascinating. These are guys who sacrifice everything, put everything into it. With people who become champions in sport, whether it's football, rugby or the Olympics, there is a common theme, they are incredibly driven. They have the same DNA."

When we met on his 56th birthday last week I wondered what he might be doing on his 57th. Will he still be in the Olympic rings four years hence in Rio, when rugby makes it debut in a sevens event? Or will the tug-of-war with Twickers prove irresistible? His response is enigmatic. "The things that have been coming up now and again [a return to rugby] have not been led by me. I am enjoying this job and looking forward to the next Olympics, both in Sochi for the Winter Games and then in Rio once London is done and dusted. But nothing is set in stone. 2012 will be a time to re-evaluate.

"I am thrilled to be involved in something which is going to be colossal," he adds. "The nation hasn't realised yet what is going to hit it, how big this is going to be. Sport will go off the wall. If it works out successfully, as we believe, there will be an immense benefit in terms of legacy. I'll be proud to have been part of it. I have been very lucky in that I have never planned my career, things have just happened.

"I enjoy working for the BOA and I am totally committed to 2012. These Winter Games and the Summer Olympics are something I am really keen to do. After 2012, well, my career will go whichever way it wants to go."

Redknapp ideal for England job

Sir Clive Woodward has joined the call for Tottenham's Harry Redknapp to become the England football manager after Euro 2012, writes Alan Hubbard.

"I had a year with him at Southampton, which I loved," he says. "Harry was fantastic and I really hope he gets the England job, just as Brian Clough should have. He's an Englishman who's proved himself and from what I saw of him, he's ideally suited.

"Working with him was a priceless experience. I learned so much. The players respect him hugely. He has this incredible talent for spotting and grooming talent. I hope England do well in Euro 2012 with [Fabio] Capello but after that I'd like to see Harry in charge because he isa world-class coach."

The possibility of Woodward's own return to football, rather than rugby, after his Olympic mission has not been kicked into touch. He says he was on the brink of becoming the manager of a League club before accepting his Olympic role.

"I was approached by two clubs in the lower divisions before the offer from Colin Moynihan [the BOA's chairman]. Not a day goes by when I wonder what might have happened had I taken a job in football. I was ready to go but I chose the Olympics because they were in London, and it was the right thing to do."

Woodward admits he misses the "buzz" of the changing room and one suspects a renewed offer from football later this year might be favourably received.