Will Greenwood: The loyal centre of England who has learned from tragedy and glory

If 2003 was the greatest year of Will Greenwood's career as a rugby player, 2004 has probably been the lanky centre's most disappointing.

If 2003 was the greatest year of Will Greenwood's career as a rugby player, 2004 has probably been the lanky centre's most disappointing. His club, Harlequins, despite pushing Munster hard in Saturday's 15-9 Heineken Cup defeat, have still not won a match in any competition all season. And the England team, after two years so dominant up to last November, have spent the subsequent year well and truly losing that aura of invincibility.

Greenwood did not go on England's miserable summer tour, but he has still tasted defeat this year at the hands of the French and the Irish. And he has watched his muckers Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard and Lawrence Dallaglio leave the camp, not to mention his mentor, Sir Clive Woodward.

With the new captain, Jonny Wilkinson, also out of the frame, injured again, one wonders how many influential characters the world champions can afford to lose. If for Webb Ellis one were to read Jules Rimet, the situation is akin to the footballing heroes of 1966 losing Alf Ramsey, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst within a year of winning the World Cup. So Greenwood - the son of the former England rugby captain Dick Greenwood - is one of an increasingly rare breed; a member of England's World Cup-winning XV who has neither retired from international rugby, nor been crocked by long-term injury. He is, therefore, fully available for selection for next month's matches against Canada, South Africa and Australia, and will, if picked, hope to turn the clock back exactly 12 months, to help to rebuild that invincibility.

All of which gives us lots to talk about. And there is also the small matter of Greenwood's recently-published autobiography, in which he writes with searing candour about the death of his baby son Freddie, and the 40,000-mile round-trip he felt compelled to make when, during the World Cup, his wife Caro started experiencing serious difficulties with her second pregnancy.

His personal life, indeed, is where we start. While Caro busies herself in the adjacent kitchen, Greenwood sits in the living-room of their home in Southfields, south-west London, expressing profound concern that his book is being marketed at least partly on the back of their traumatic experience with little Freddie.

"Maybe I shouldn't have done the book," he says. "I find it very difficult, seeing a newspaper article about Freddie, and at the end it says 'buy the book for £17.99'. It keeps me up at night, to be honest." Greenwood is nothing if not honest. There is a terrific passage in his book about the England team's journey back to the hotel following victory in the World Cup final in Sydney. At one point the coach pulled up at some traffic lights beside a bus stop, where 300 or so Australian fans stood looking utterly crestfallen. Anticipating some abuse, Greenwood and several team-mates crowded together at the window celebrating effusively and singing an obscene version of Waltzing Matilda that certainly does not involve waltzing. But far from getting the abuse they expected, they then saw the Australians, to a man, woman and child, applauding them. "Whoops," he writes. "A little red-faced and sheepish, we applaud them back."

The fierce togetherness of that England team he ascribes in part to the fact that a disproportionate number of them had suffered personal tragedy - the death of Freddie, who was born 18 weeks prematurely and survived for only 45 minutes; the murder in 2000 of Ben Cohen's father; the drowning, in the Marchioness disaster, of Dallaglio's sister; as well as the grief they all felt at the news that Nick Duncombe, Greenwood's young Harlequins team-mate, had died suddenly while warm-weather training in Lanzarote.

"We were already a physical unit but it made us an emotional unit," Greenwood tells me. "Obviously Lawrence had lost his sister years earlier, but quite a few of us had suffered while we were together as a group. And I'll never, ever forget going into a meeting room in Perth, and telling Clive that I might have to go home, and him saying, 'look mate, family is so much more important than rugby'. I mean, I knew that was true but I also knew the hours he'd spent preparing his team. I was unsure what his response would be, and then I found that he'd booked me on every flight out, so that I could go at the drop of a hat."

Mercifully, Greenwood got home to find that Caro, who had been taken unconscious into intensive care, was on the mend (their son Archie arrived safely in January this year). Woodward got his man back a week later, in time to come on as a replacement in the group match against Uruguay. "For me," Greenwood writes in his book, "Woodward can do no wrong."

But does this extend to Woodward's subsequent decision to quit as England coach, while remaining in charge of the Lions? "Well, it was a total surprise, as was Lawrence retiring. But I totally understand both decisions. Lawrence is such a tremendous family guy, and he felt he'd given so much to the England cause. As for Clive, he gave me my first cap, dropped me, picked me again, took me to a Grand Slam, took me to a World Cup final. As far as I'm concerned he can go and pick flowers and I would wish him all the best in his flower-picking.

"Besides, Clive's now going to spend time with Mike Ruddock before they (Wales) play New Zealand, he's going to spend time with the French team, things he wouldn't have been able to do as England coach. So with a Lions hat on you can only be enthusiastic about it." And with an England hat on? Can Woodward's successor Andy Robinson restore the world champions to the top of the pile? "Well, people tend to forget the early losses under Clive, the Grand Slam defeats. There's never a seamless transition from one coach to the next. The new guy will always want to do it slightly differently, even though Robbo was already so much part of the set-up. He'll take on positive things that Clive initiated, but there'll be some things he'll want to do his own way. And that's good. What I do see, in bright neon lights, for 70 players in the Premiership, is opportunity. Opportunity for those who have been in the side, for those who have been in and then left out, and for those who have never been in."

How, I ask Greenwood, does he explain England's decline from the heights of 12 months ago, in particular the Six Nations débâcle? A wry smile. "Losing in Paris is no disgrace, but people say, 'you see, that's the attitude that lost us the game'. What, being a realist? The Ireland game was more disappointing, the manner in which we performed. The same desire was there but not all the building blocks were in place. People say we have been going to too many cocktail parties. Well, when you work all your life for something and then achieve it, I defy anyone not to go to a bloody cocktail party.

"On the other hand, that extra party on a Tuesday night that you've gone to, the Tuesday night when you're supposed to have your chicken and pasta and instead you've had a few cocktail sausages, these things can make a difference. The level of intensity at international level now, compared with 1997 when I first played ... it's a different world.

"Also, you need to take account of the physical fatigue from being unbeaten on the road for two years, and the emotional fatigue of being away for the World Cup. I had two weeks off when we came back and that was a long time compared to some of the other guys. The words 'do me a favour' come to mind. And of course you make a rod for your own back when you beat the southern hemisphere nations 14 times on the trot, because when you suddenly lose to them people say, 'hang on, we thought you were world champions'.

"But I'm not making excuses. We're trying to learn from where we've gone wrong. That was always one of the great strengths of Clive's teams; learning from our mistakes." The job of rectifying some of those mistakes, at least as they affect the back division, has now passed to the former rugby league star Joe Lydon.

Greenwood, a Lancastrian from the top of his head to the tips of his boots, six feet and five inches away, is a rugby league devotee, a diehard Wigan fan, and almost boyishly excited at the prospect of being coached by one of the legends of the 13-man game.

"If you want a guy to come and coach you who's got the T-shirt, then watch his 60-yard drop goals, his 95-yard tries ... instant respect for the bloke. I bloody love rugby league, and I'd love to have played it even once.

"I'd probably have got my head kicked in and been stretchered off the park, but I'd love to have had a go. I know they go on about union being a rubbish game, but can you not enjoy both? Is it illegal? I love my football too, and I'm a massive Man City fan. Is it illegal as a City fan to support United in Europe? It bloody shouldn't be. And I do think some of those rugby league guys are fantastic athletes."

He's no slouch himself, of course, and is also known as one of the most tactically astute of players, yet he concedes there is still plenty he can learn from Lydon. He's a good learner, too. In the book he describes in fascinating detail the lesson he received, while making his debut for the Lions in 1997, from the South Africa and then Eastern Province fly-half Hennie le Roux.

"He showed me the value of eyes in an attacking move," Greenwood recalls. "You think, 'what the hell do eyes have to do with it?' But an experienced player can lock you with his eyes and lead you somewhere you shouldn't be." In that Lions game, Le Roux used his eyes to drag Greenwood way out of position, leaving a gap through which Deon Kayser dashed to score.

"It was like one of those zombie films. He got me in his beam and just reeled me in. In the 1998 Six Nations I was able to do the same thing. We ran a move which involved me locking eyes with my opposite man, saying 'I'm coming at you', but it was just to create space either inside or outside me. David Rees scored two, Catty (Mike Catt) one and Jerry Guscott one, all from the same move.

"That's the kind of guile you see less and less these days. I worry about rugby, about the focus on being 6ft 4in and 20 stone. Where's that Hennie le Roux cunning? It's there in rugby league, but (in union) only a handful of players, like Wilko (Jonny Wilkinson), have it. And they are vastly outnumbered by the bulldozers. I suppose you just have to evolve with the game. Jason Leonard evolved five or six times in his career. He changed body shape according to what the new diet was, what the new training regime was. Was it aerobic, endurance-based, power-based? Whatever it was he adapted."

Greenwood, it occurs to me as I take my leave of his home, trying unsuccessfully to bodyswerve the insistent family terrier Rufus, would probably make a fine coach when he retires as a player. He communicates easily, he has an authoritative presence, he plainly thinks deeply about the game, and he even has impeccable family pedigree, his father having coached England for a time.

"I don't think so," he says, when I ask whether he is likely to take that route. A big chuckle. "My dad might give me a clip round the ear for this, but when he was England coach, with Jonathan Davies running rings round us at Cardiff Arms Park, it always made for a bloody stressful time at home."

'Will, the autobiography of Will' Greenwood, is published by Century

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