Rugby Union: England abandon the comfort zone

Tim Glover hears the new coach will do the job only one way - his
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Clive Woodwardgave his country due warning. He compared his appointment as the first full-time coach to picking a teenager to play for England. "There is an element of risk," he said.

Woodward was a mercurial centre for Leicester, England and the Lions and he threatens to imbue England with a similar unorthodoxy. He has signed a three-year contract and it could be the most interesting period in the history of the Rugby Football Union. England have gambled on a gambler.

Geoff Cooke, the coach who put the thorns on the rose, described him as "volatile". Woodward's response was: "I look forward to meeting Geoff. He'll have ample opportunity to tell me where I'm going wrong. I don't know about volatile. I'm very passionate; passionate about everything. I don't believe that because you've played for England it entitles you to become coach. There are some superb men who have never coached a country. Look at Billy here."

Woodward was flanked by the winners of the professional revolution: Fran Cotton, Cliff Brittle, Roger Uttley, the new manager, and Billy. At Woodward's remark, Bill Beaumont, chairman of the national playing committee, went the colour of a beetroot. Woodward, whose creed is "perform, perform, perform", added: "You have to earn your stripes as a coach."

Beaumont was the England captain when Woodward was doing some extraordinary things in the threequarter line and it was the Lancastrian who rang him with the job offer. Woodward replied "Yeah, brilliant. I'd love to do it." He had no reservations, apart from seeking Bath's blessing, but others have.

The question is this: has Woodward earned his stripes? Richard Hill, the Gloucester and England A coach, said that had he been offered the job he would have declined on the grounds that he was too inexperienced.

Woodward's promotion has taken him from a lay-by at Henley to the fast track at Twickenham in what seems to be the blinking of an eye. At 41 he is not only England's youngest coach but the most forthright. He doesn't suffer fools gladly; he doesn't suffer them at all.

When the RFU first contacted him a couple of years ago to coach one of their junior sides, Woodward was so flabbergasted by the amateurish approach, he walked out of the meeting. As Beaumont says "Woodward is his own man. There will be no comfort zone for the players."

When asked if he would be in sole charge, Woodward sounded surprised that the question could even be framed. "You wouldn't want to be a coach unless you have the ultimate say," he replied. After 21 caps and two Lions' tours, he cut his coaching teeth during a spell in Sydney where he worked for Rank Xerox and captained Manly. He was on a two-year contract, stayed for five and returned to England in 1990 to set up his own business, a computer leasing company. Being his own boss is something that applies to coaching as well as business. Woodward spent two years at Henley during which they went up two divisions. "Suddenly rugby was very competitive and I found it quite seductive," he said.

He was approached by two first division clubs but opted for London Irish. "The club was a shambles. They had lost focus, verve, passion, everything. It was a good situation in which to stamp my authority. That kind of appealed to me."

He won them promotion but when the Irish accused him of anglicising the club he walked out. His refusal to sign a contract gave him that freedom. When he joined Bath as assistant coach it was on a handshake. Even so, he made sure the RFU did the right thing by the club. "Bath didn't want me to go but if they said that I had to stay I would have."

With Bath compensated and his business in the hands of his 12 employees, Woodward, for the first time, will earn money from rugby in a role he describes as a three-year sabbatical. It is said to be worth pounds 150,000 a year but he maintains that whatever the sum, it is of secondary importance. "Quite frankly, if money was a consideration I'd never have gone into coaching in the first place. I'm doing it because I love it." And he doesn't have to wear a suit.

In an interview a couple of seasons ago, Woodward said: "I hate all this crap about the strength of the Southern Hemisphere. We have to create a game that suits our structure. Instead all we do is bring in Australian and New Zealand coaches." His new assistant is John Mitchell, a New Zealander.

He also said: "As a player I had a reputation for living in the fast lane, for having fun. Some people don't see that I can be serious. If you're the right guy you should get the job. If you fail, you should get the sack. That's the businessman in me. What I don't agree with is a pecking order which says you've got to do such and such before getting there. When I played for England the next coach was pre-ordained years ahead because he'd been through the production line."

England play New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in the autumn and by Wednesday Woodward will slash the national squad of 77 players to 25 or 30. His mind is already on the World Cup in two years. "There is some outstanding talent around, players as young as 17 and 18 who will be featuring in the World Cup. My objective is to win the thing. You never see a loser with a smile on his face."