Exiles on keen streak

Paul Trow asks Clive Woodward why he is not relishing a return to Leicester
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The Independent Online
ONE of the biggest occasions in the 98-year history of London Irish is less than a week away and Clive Woodward is not looking forward to it one little bit.

Reaching the semi-finals of the Pilkington Cup in only his second season in charge of a team which was "an absolute shambles" when he took over would seem, on the face of it, to be quite an achievement. In truth, though, Saturday's engagement with his former club Leicester is the last thing the Exiles' coach wants, especially as the club faces an uphill struggle to hold on to second place in Courage League Two.

"Promotion is our priority this season and I don't want to find myself in May regretting that we beat West Hartlepool in our quarter-final," said the 40-year-old former England and British Lions centre. "Obviously the players are excited about appear-ing in front of a sell-out crowd at Sunbury, but in terms of all the hard work we have put in this season it is totally unimportant.

"The following Saturday we start a run of four tough league games with a really difficult visit to Wakefield who nearly beat Bath in the Cup last month. They are very much the form team in the Second Division at present, and we will need to be at our best against them. Any sense of anticlimax among the players after the Leicester game would be disastrous because it could stop us from being promoted.

"Also, what happens if we suffer injuries against Leicester? We have excellent reserves for some positions, but in other areas we have virtually no cover at all."

There is little doubt, then, that Woodward, twice a Cup winner with Leicester (the first time, ironically, at the expense of London Irish in the 1980 final), does not rate the competition as highly as he did when he was in his pomp as a player. "When I went to live in Australia in 1985, there were no leagues in England. In those days, Leicester played, at the most, four competitive matches a year - all in the Cup - and the rest were meaningless friendlies.

"If you were knocked out of the Cup early on, your season was over. Frankly, I found it totally boring and that is why I left in the end, much though I loved Leicester. Up to that point, the three months I had spent in South Africa as a Lion in 1980, when I was fully focused on rugby, was the best time of my life."

The Manly club in Sydney was similarly to his liking. "We had a proper competitive structure there, but I only played for a couple of seasons before packing it in to do a bit of coaching."

Woodward returned to England in 1989 to set up his own computer leasing company in Buckinghamshire, and shortly afterwards he was invited by his former Leicester team-mates Mike Poulson and Mark Duffelyn to become involved with the coaching at nearby Henley.

"They were in South-West Two when I joined, but now they are in National League Five. Then two years ago my colleague Ann Heaver, who is also a life member at London Irish, recommended me to Mike Gibson, the former Ireland No 8. The club was at rock-bottom, but a new regime had taken over and Mike, who was the new director of rugby, did a really good job of selling the place to me."

Woodward found only 13 players at his first training session, but it was not long before he had sold himself to London Irish. "Clive brought a sense of responsibility both on and off the field in terms of people's specific tasks," said the Exiles' captain, Garry Halpin. "As a result we are more organised. He has revolutionised the club and everybody listens to him. He is a very convincing guy."

His refusal to be remunerated for his coaching services until a pay structure is installed for the players has no doubt helped to convince. "Having professional coaches giving bollockings to amateur players who work hard at their jobs all week is no way to gain their respect."

However, this Corinthian philosophy is not confined to coaches, as he is adamant the club should not offer cash inducements to players either. "Rugby is the ultimate team game and I'd stand down if anyone was able to join London Irish for purely financial reasons. Personally, I'd get far more of a buzz out of helping to develop a young player into a genuine international."

Recent speculation suggests the Exiles are seeking 10 millionaire sugar- daddies, each prepared to pump pounds 200,000 into the kitty. Woodward feels such investments should be targeted at the players already with the club. This week, though, he would happily pay the money to Pilkington to cancel the Cup.