Rugby Union / The rugby moderniser looking for a new England

The cynics have already mockingly labelled England's new management regime the `1980 mafia' but for Clive Woodward, all that matters is the here and now. Here the latest inhabitant of the Twickenham hot-seat outlines his principles and explodes one or two lingering myths.
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The Independent Online
Seventeen years on, rugby's great divide had not narrowed an inch. The piano shifters - craggy, gnarled, cauliflower-eared veterans of countless forward conflicts - were resplendent in sharp suits and floral ties, but they still managed to resemble three man-eating ogres in search of a light snack. Fran Cotton, Bill Beaumont and Roger Uttley. Each one an oil painting... by Picasso.

And beside them - dwarfed by them, indeed - sat the piano player, the twinkling Oscar Peterson who, in England's famous Grand Slam year of 1980, took hold of the rhythm laid down by the uglies up front and created a melody that still sings in the memory. As Peter FitzSimons, the old Wallaby lock and raconteur, once observed: "Forwards are scarred creatures who have a propensity for bleeding all over each other. Backs have clean jerseys and identifiable partings in their hair, and come the revolution, they will be lined up against the wall and shot for living parasitically off the work of others."

Jealousy, jealousy. Fran and his beaten-up buddies could probably pack a fairly evil punch even now, but Clive Woodward, cherubically unmarked and as fit as a flea, looked as though he could still play. One glance at England's new hierarchy as they convened at Bisham Abbey a couple of weeks ago offered incontrovertible proof that forwards become forwards only because nature short-changed them.

Just for a fleeting moment, Woodward's appointment as England coach brought the conspiracy theorists out of their dark corner. This 1980 reunion business was getting out of hand, they muttered. It smacked of freemasonry, nepotism, jobs for the boys. How many more middle-aged foot soldiers from the Beaumont army could expect to land a juicy Twickenham number for old time's sake?

"Complete coincidence," says Woodward, all smiles but aware of the sniping none the less. "If there was even a hint of an old pal's act - of Billy or Fran saying `Let's bring Woody in, he's a mate' - I wouldn't have accepted the job. Not for anything. I'd have found it demeaning. There were quite a number of candidates for the coaching job and all of them were candidates on merit. I was one of them and they've chosen me.

"People get the rugby camaraderie thing all wrong sometimes. Before this came up, I hadn't spoken to Bill, Fran or Roger for 12 or 13 years, not properly. I'd see them in the car park at Twickenham, perhaps, or at some dinner somewhere, but that would be it. There was a deep bond among those who played in '80 - it was, after all, a special time in all our lives - but hell, it happened ages ago.

"I know there's been the odd line in the newspapers about the 1980 stuff, and I could understand it if we'd been playing golf together every week for God knows how long. But quite honestly, I've never had cause to pick up the phone to any of them until now. I'm still close to Peter Wheeler [the former Leicester hooker and current Leicester chief executive] because we both played for the Tigers. But I haven't been any closer to Bill or Fran than to Phil Blakeway or John Scott.

"You have to remember that I was a fair bit younger than those guys. My first four caps were in those four Grand Slam games and I suddenly found myself playing with people I considered heroes. Looking back, I was a little unlucky in the sense that it all happened too quickly for me. People like Fran had waited all their rugby lives for something of that magnitude to happen to them and consequently, they savoured it all the more. Mind you, I was a whole lot luckier than poor old Tony Bond. If he hadn't broken his leg in the opening match against Ireland, I might never have made the team."

Woodward regards Beaumont as an outstanding captain - "He had the ability to delegate; he knew he had a host of players around him who could lead the side every bit as effectively and he made a point of giving them responsibility" - and he wants to encourage a similar culture of consensus. "Whoever I choose as skipper will be a vital component in the sense that he will have to understand my views and ideas sufficiently well to communicate them to the other players. On the pitch, though, I want to see him surrounded by good leaders. They will emerge through force of personality."

Sensibly, Woodward has gone out of his way to play down the captaincy issue. It is, he says, low on his list of priorities and, anyway, there may well be more than one designated leader as the early matches of his stewardship unfold over the coming months.

"It would be ridiculous of me to try to find another Will Carling. What Geoff Cooke did by appointing a youngster like Will on a long-term basis was radical, quite brilliant in many ways, and history shows that he chose the right guy. But it was something of its time. England's position is very different now and my judgement will be different too."

If Woodward's skills as the silkiest of midfield runners were honed at Leicester under the gimlet eye of Chalkie White, his imaginative gifts as a coach were fired by Bob Dwyer - now, ironically enough, the Big Cheese at Welford Road. "I went to Australia in 1985 to play for Manly, and Bob was in charge of the other major Sydney club, Randwick. It was through watching him work with the great players around him - David Campese and the Ella brothers were there at the time - that I first realised a coach could make a real difference.

"He was doing terrific, thought-provoking things with them. I was getting on a bit, I didn't want to play for too much longer and I thought I'd seen it all, knew it all. Dwyer was a real eye-opener, though. When I returned to England I had all sorts of brainwaves and theories I wanted to try out.

"Australia impressed me in other ways. I visited their Institute of Sport in Canberra and it blew my mind. I wouldn't quite say it made me embarrassed to be English but it certainly made me envious. I thought then that we should have something similar in this country. Twelve years down the road, it hasn't happened.

"I also admired their emphasis on youth; the Australians have no respect for age - they respect talent and ability instead. When I joined Manly I was 29, still quite young in English terms, but, as I soon discovered, it made me a grandfather in their eyes. It shows in the sides they pick at international level. Tim Horan and Jason Little played their first Tests as teenagers. Ben Tune is still 20, yet he's already in double figures in terms of caps. I'm no ageist - if a 34-year-old is playing better than anyone else, he'll be in the England team. But the same goes for a 19- year-old."

In many ways, the most intriguing aspect of the new coach's first squad selection was the "emerging" element, 11 youngsters asked to link up with the 23-strong "elite" squad for an afternoon's work-out at Bisham Abbey. While he is too diplomatic to admit it in so many words, Woodward sees the likes of Matt Perry, Andy Long and Joe Worsley as the fast-track generation, youngsters capable of pushing for World Cup recognition in 1999.

"Having worked with these players in the England Under-21s last year, I know the things they're capable of. But hey, there may be 17-year-olds out there who will come through in time for the tournament. We have to get ourselves right on top of things at under-16 and under-17 level because any country looking for lasting international success simply has to maximise the available talent. We've cobbled things together in the past. I think we should be doing more than that.

"There is another issue leading on from this, of course. How do we ensure that the best of the emerging talent gets the chance to play top-level rugby week in, week out? Now I'm not looking for conflict with the clubs over this because I absolutely agree that imported players are pushing up standards in the Premiership.

"But there is very definitely a nightmare scenario, one where I find there are no England-qualified outside-halves or middle jumpers or right wings to watch on a Saturday afternoon. There's no need to panic but we have to discuss this openly and honestly and find a way forward."

Strikingly successful as a self-made businessman, Woodward has developed a healthily impatient attitude towards over- bureaucratised committee structures and, especially, the stodgy English infatuation with pecking orders and time-serving. Rather like his predecessor, Jack Rowell, he keeps odd hours; his work patterns are very nearly as rapid as his thought processes and if he left more than his fair share of opponents for dead during his days as an outside centre, rather more are likely to find themselves spluttering away in the slipstream over the next few months.

"People ask me when I first realised I was being considered as a candidate for the England job and I give them an honest answer: that I considered myself to be in the frame from the moment I took on the Under-21s job last season. You see, I don't believe in pecking orders. I don't believe that you have to serve three years with this side and three with that side before you can climb the ladder.

"Look at John Mitchell, who has come in as assistant coach. He's young - 33 or thereabouts - but who says a coach can't do a job at that age? In business, you can be a millionaire at 21, it's been done. You don't have to wait until you're 71 to make your first million. Age just doesn't enter into the equation as far as I'm concerned; you're either a good coach or you're not. Experience is a good thing, of course, but I've no time for the treadmill approach."

Having insisted on playing a central role in selecting his own coaching colleagues, Woodward is delighted to have Mitchell on board. "He scares me, actually. I've seen him on the touchline and experienced the animal passion he brings to his work. In a game situation he's totally aggressive, yet off the field he is in complete control, almost unbelievably polite. He's a deep thinker about the game, too. Very meticulous.

"People seem to see John as a forwards specialist and myself as a backs coach. I hate being called a backs coach, actually. It's another thing I find demeaning. Pierre Villepreux once said that 20 per cent of rugby coaching is about set plays and the other 80 per cent about what happens when the ball has been won. He was dead right. John and I will work together, not separately.

"What we need to identify and develop is the `edge' we have over other teams. I have no doubt whatsoever that player for player, we are every bit as good as the All Blacks, and when we go toe to toe with them, as we will twice during the autumn, it will be 15 against 15. At this level, the difference between winning and losing can be tiny. That's what I mean by the `edge' and it's my job to find it."