Rugby: The ruthless Woodward way

It took them an interminable amount of time and caused them no end of embarrassment, but English rugby's top brass finally appointed their new national coach yesterday - a bright, ambitious fortysomething with a mind of his own and a willingness to speak it. Chris Hewett charts Clive Woodward's transformation from maverick to main man
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Jack Rowell ruffled so many Rugby Football Union feathers and upset the Twickenham applecart with such frequency during the contentious three and a half years he spent as England's manager-cum-coach that those inhabiting the higher echelons of "old fartdom" must have yearned for a simple, servile, kow-towing yes man as his replacement. They can carry on dreaming over their double gins, for Clive Woodward is no one's idea of a bootlicking sycophant.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Woodward's imaginative rugby philosophy may have little in common with the instinctive pragmatism of his predecessor - after all, the former Lions centre is, at 41, the best part of 20 years younger than Big Jack - but, in one very important sense, Rowellism remains the flavour of the epoch. The new boy will hold no truck with excessive outside interference; things will be done his way and to hell with the consequences.

To many of the great and good who circulate and pontificate along the highways and byways of the English game, Woodward is a shot in the dark. To Geoff Cooke, who coached Will Carling's side to two Grand Slams and a World Cup final in the early years of this decade, he is not even that. "I worry about his volatility - he's up and down and I have question marks about him," Cooke told Rugby News.

"Someone recently said how valuable it was that Clive had performed at international level and therefore understood the game. My view is: so what? That was in 1980; the fact that he was an exciting centre doesn't mean he can motivate a grizzled old prop forward. Most outstanding performers are selfish by nature and possess the arrogance you need to reach the top. Those are not necessarily the qualifications for a good coach; some people can't coach for toffee, no matter how well they know rugby." Well, thanks, Geoff. Nothing like getting your retaliation in first.

Woodward will not bat an eyelid in the face of that sort of premature knife-wielding. He had the confidence to plough his own highly individual furrow during a 21-cap England career that also earned him two Lions Test appearances in South Africa in 1980 and has continued in that self-assured vein throughout a successful business career - he owns a computer leasing company - and his coaching stints at Henley, London Irish, whom he left after falling out with the committee-room suits, and, latterly, Bath.

He flatly refused to take a penny from London Irish during a halcyon 1995-96 campaign in which they won the Courage League Two title and reached the semi-final of the Pilkington Cup. He also took a singular stance when first approached by England, insisting that his "gentlemen's agreement" with Bath be honoured.

As recently as 18 months ago, indeed, he believed he had shot his bolt with the national set-up. "I've put my ideas to the RFU, but I get the impression they've stamped the word `maverick' on my folder and returned it to the bottom of the heap," he said at the time. But he stuck to his guns, preaching the gospel of 15-man rugby to forwards as well as backs. "I hate the label `backs specialist' because the trick is to get the pack buying into the expansive approach. Ball-playing forwards are the key; you can't tell me there aren't eight in the whole of England who fit the bill."

Having played his last England international in 1984, Woodward spent two instructive seasons with Manly, the crack Sydney club side. He remains an admirer of the Wallaby system, under which the best players are concentrated into three provincial sides, and has called for a significant pruning of England's representative network.

"All we need below the full England side is two divisions, north and south, who would play against each other a couple of times a season," he once said. "Selection should be brutal, ruthless, because we need to see the best players competing face to face. The only people in rugby who know who can play and who can't are the coaches and the players, not the trilbies in the stand."

It is an unforgiving, confrontational attitude but then this is an unforgiving sort of job. Win or lose, England will be given carte blanche to play with vision and panache. "If we want to win a World Cup," the new coach is fond of saying, "we have to remove the fear factor. If players are confident enough to take risks week in, week out, we might just see them do it when the pressure is really on."