Rugby Union: The burn-out factor fires Woodward

The money men must stop driving the players to breaking point, says the idealist who has France and the Webb Ellis Trophy in his sights; Tim Glover meets the England coach with a vision of the best of all worlds
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AS HE walked into Bisham Abbey for an England training session a few days ago, Lawrence Dallaglio told reporters: "Don't talk to me, I've got burn-out."

The England captain, who hasn't played for two weeks, was facetiously referring to a story that his engine has lost its turbo.

When England open the Five Nations' Championship against France in Paris next Saturday at the new Stade de France, Dallaglio expects to be in overdrive. But if reports of burn-out are premature, they will soon be a reality, according to Clive Woodward, the England coach.

Woodward, who has been in the job less than six months, talks as he used to play: you never quite know what he's going to come up with next. On the one hand, everything he does is geared to winning the World Cup next year; on the other if the game here doesn't take a pit stop, England will be in no fit state to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy in Cardiff in 1999.

"We are so far behind other countries in our treatment of international athletes," Woodward said. "American footballers play no more than 28 games a season and that's including the Super Bowl. Our guys are looking down the barrel at 45 to 50. You do that week in week out, year after year and you'll go backwards. International players need at least two months off. It has to happen if England want to be the best in the world. I'm not just referring to the England team as a whole but to individual players. If the system doesn't change, their careers will be cut short by three to four years. They will not last."

Woodward has a good relationship with the RFU - "they have been totally supportive" - and with his counterpart tracksuits in the clubs. It is the suits, the owners and chief executives, he's having trouble with. "I don't have the same rapport or dialogue that I enjoy with the RFU. Unfortunately, it's getting pretty messy with those who run the clubs. We need to get some sensible people around a table."

Nevertheless, Woodward, England's first full-time coach, has already made a big impression, not only with his squad but the general public. When the former Leicester and Lions centre succeeded Jack Rowell after brief spells with Henley, London Irish and Bath, he went straight into the original fixture list from hell - the All Blacks twice, Australia and South Africa.

It is a measure of Woodward's progress that although England failed to win a single match, people don't remember that. What they remember is the classic drawn Test against New Zealand at Twickenham in the first week of December. The whole ball game was a revelation, an uplifting experience that for once dispelled the tedious civil skirmishes that have threatened to throw rugby's professionalism back into amateur night on the ground once occupied by cabbages.

"I have received lots of mail as a result of that game," Woodward said, "and I'm still getting letters. It's one of the nice parts of the job. A lot of people enjoyed the atmosphere. It was something they hadn't experienced."

The experiment of playing at Old Trafford was a huge success, particularly after the dull draw against Australia at headquarters which Woodward described as being like a morgue. "The game against the All Blacks proved that there's nothing wrong with Twickenham. I'd never seen a crowd like it. People were jumping up and down, which hasn't happened for a long time. I want to make Twickenham an exciting place to visit."

It is typical of Woodward that while admitting that the Breathless Test was a "fantastic game", it was also, from a purist's point of view, i.e. his, deeply flawed. "The only negatives," he said, "have come from myself and the other coaches. In the cold light of day we didn't play as well as we thought we had. We were a long way from where we needed to be. We missed 21 first-up tackles and our ball retention was not that good. Our three tries came from only three chances. It's all fairly sobering when you look at the mistakes we made. Eight out of 10 times we'd have lost that match. Somehow we managed to get away with a draw. We caught the All Blacks napping and it's not that difficult when you're the massive underdogs.

"What we're about to experience [against France] will be totally different. It's vital we improve on the way we played against New Zealand. We desperately want to win this game."

Woodward, who was in Bordeaux yesterday for the European Cup final, will probably finalise his team tomorrow. Richard Cockerill may not make it to the land of the cockerel; nor may Jeremy Guscott. "Any player who goes on to the pitch not 100 per cent fit is mad," Woodward said. "I'll never experiment with the England team. That's a precious commodity. There are no cheap caps."

Martin Johnson and Neil Back sat out the session at Bisham Abbey while Richard Hill's participation was cut short. As if to emphasise Woodward's warning on overkill, a temporary medical station was erected next to the training ground for running repairs.

"Rugby," Woodward declared, "is the ultimate team game. Not necessarily the best individual will get in. If you pick someone who is not fully prepared to work to the standards of the team, then things can fall apart."

Woodward expects the French game to be another cracker, not least because their coach, Pierre Villepreux, one of the first to congratulate him after the All Blacks epic, is on a similar wavelength. "We like to play the game at high pace with the ball in our hands," Woodward said. "To win the World Cup you have to play that way. It may sound obvious but what we are trying to do is score tries."

There is no rest for the knackered. The Five Nations finishes in April, the Allied Dunbar Premiership in May and a few weeks later England embark on a sequel to the fixtures from hell, visiting Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Woodward points out that when the All Blacks left Britain, they had Christmas off, followed by 10 weeks of what he describes as quality training. "In terms of fitness they are massively ahead of us. And they play less games than we do."

Thus far, in terms of job satisfaction, Woodward gives his new post 7 out of 10. "Lots of things have annoyed me but it's like any job. In one sense it's not as satisfying as a club job in that I miss the close contact with players. I still talk to them but they're not my players."

Leading coaches also feature on his family and friends BT list. "They're what I call rugby men. People like Andy Robinson, Nigel Melville, even non-English guys like Ian McGeechan and Bob Dwyer. Without exception they have been fantastic," Woodward said. "If their players are not in the team they want to know why. We have the players to compete with the best in the world. The only thing I'm looking towards is the World Cup. That is what I will judge myself on."

The suits want matches and plenty of them in order to generate income and balance the books which are heavily lopsided towards expenditure. "The financial success of the game," Woodward said, "depends on a successful England. I'm determined to do it my way."