Rugby Union: Trying times fail to dim Woodward fire

Criticism after the victory against France has not affected the spirit within the camp or the England coach's approach to the game. By Chris Hewett
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WILL ENGLAND wrap up a fourth Grand Slam in nine years by beating Wales at Wembley tomorrow? Do they stand the remotest chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy in November? Can the red roses hope to reach full bloom in the prolonged absence of Will Greenwood, their most incisive attacking weapon? Will Richard Cockerill and Austin Healey ever shut up? All of the above - especially the last - are legitimate questions, but none can be said to represent the burning issue of the day. What people seem to want to know, 24 hours from a last Five Nations hurrah and with the World Cup a mere 173 days distant, is this: are England boring?

It is hardly a ground-breaking topic for discussion - it generally crops up when the hope-and-glory brigade start winning rugby matches. They were, it was said, boring in 1980, when Bill Beaumont's ancien regime clapped the rest of Europe in leg irons; they were, according to many, pretty damned monotonous in 1991, when Ackford and Dooley and Richards were chucking their weight around the playing fields of the northern hemisphere; and they were, by common consent, positively mind-numbing under Jack Rowell in 1995.

Remember all that "interactive rugby"? No, thought not.

So what about the Clive Woodward vintage as they merrily roll along on a diet of 1.5 tries per match? The coach rolls his eyes to the heavens, lets slip a half-sigh and shakes his head mournfully. "Boring? That's ridiculous, don't you think? It's so ridiculous that I can't bring myself to resent it, although I do think of the players and how they must feel when they read this stuff. Let me tell you something about the French game: we played the same way that day as when we drew with the All Blacks in '97 and beat the Boks last December. The only significant difference was that we didn't score a try. You can analyse away to your heart's content, but the bottom line was that the French stopped us crossing their line. Fair play to them. We bombed a few chances, sure, but they defended superbly.

"You can't control expectation and perception, I suppose. We scored one solitary try against South Africa - a try from a cross-field kick, as it happened - but, because we beat the world champions, a side on a fantastic winning streak, we were heroes. Against France, it was widely assumed that we would win. And win we did, by kicking our goals. That seems to have been regarded as a failure in some quarters of the press, but I can't for the life of me understand why.

"I haven't changed a bit since starting this job, not in terms of how I want to see England play the game; as far as I'm concerned, there is no turning back. Do you honestly think I'd have shifted Tim Rodber to lock or kept Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back in the same back row if I'd wanted us to stick the ball up our jumpers? These blokes are footballers, they can play a bit. I'd have picked a very different pack if I'd wanted to put up the shutters. Sometimes, I think people forget that there are 15 guys on the other side of halfway trying to stop you doing what you want to do."

Okay, not boring then. How about functional? "Look, I haven't received one negative e-mail (Woodward lived and breathed computers in a past life and he remains resolutely techno-friendly) about the way we've tackled this championship, but I've had hundreds saying: `Don't listen to the press, just keep winning.' When I went to Sale last weekend to run an eye over Steve Hanley, I had people patting me on the back in the stand. The enthusiasm for what we're doing is definitely there.

"But the players are hard on themselves, maybe too hard; Backy told me after the French match that the atmosphere in the dressing room was the flattest he could remember, which seemed a bit much considering we'd just beaten them for the first time in five attempts. But they're professionals and they're serious about their jobs.

"Back in 1980, when I played in a Grand Slam side, it really was a case of getting through the game and then going out on the lash. Things have changed. This is a very close-knit team, just as we were; there were some fantastic people in the '80 side, people I've stayed friendly with for almost 20 years. But professionalism has introduced another dimension."

There has never been a top dog quite like Woodward, at least not in stuffy old England; indeed, it seems fair and reasonable to describe him as a unique sporting figure, rather than merely a unique rugby one. While many coaches attempt to bridge the generation gap by infiltrating their players' peer group and becoming "part of the scene", they invariably end up resembling some menopausal father dancing pathetically at his daughter's birthday disco. Not Woodward. His relationship with his squad is brotherly rather than paternal, unusually close and unfailingly open. Remarkably, he consulted his senior players before picking Hanley, an uncapped 19-year-old, for tomorrow's match. "To a man, they said: `Yeah, good call, let's do it'," he reports, proudly.

However, he now accepts that his unshakeable faith in the power of youth led him up a nasty cul-de-sac in Australia and New Zealand last summer. Aware that his World Cup certainties - the Dallaglios, Johnsons, Leonards and Guscotts - were in dire need of a restorative spell on the sun-lounger, he named a 36-strong party so wet behind the ears that the water was cascading down its back. Only four of tomorrow's starters undertook the trip and while Cockerill and the two Matts, Perry and Dawson, flowered under pressure like cacti in the desert, the fourth, Jonny Wilkinson, might have been ruined for life.

"What I should have done, of course, was pull in Rob Andrew and Dean Ryan and every other hardened, seasoned England cap I could find. I should have taken a gnarled old side down there and told them to scrap it out for queen and country. I got it wrong, unfortunately, and it still rankles, just as losing to France in Paris last year still rankles. The period before and during the southern hemisphere tour was my worst spell in this job, the one time where I stopped enjoying it for a while and the only point at which Lawrence and I have had words. I knew he was on his last legs and thought he should have stopped playing before the cup final. But he's a Wasp and he took another view."

This summer's crossing of the equator will be altogether different. The Rugby Football Union has agreed a budget that allows Woodward to take his best 36 to the Couran Cove resort on South Stradbroke Island, a swanky rich man's play-pool off the Queensland coast, for three weeks of warm-weather World Cup training. England will then play the Australian Barbarians in Brisbane before topping and tailing the trip with a one- off Test against the Wallabies in Sydney. If they lose 76-0 this time, the coach really will be in Rats' Alley.

"I'm relishing that Test match, not particularly because of what happened last June but because it will provide some hard evidence of where we're at.

"As we speak, I think we're in pretty good shape going into the World Cup; standards have risen all round and the players are so into everything that I never have to worry about gym work or conditioning. They do all that before they come anywhere near an England squad session, which gives you some indication of the levels of enthusiasm.

"Of course, I'm worried about Will Greenwood." (The Leicester centre is suffering from inflammation of the pelvic bone and has not set foot on a rugby pitch since England's victory over Italy last November). "He's a top player, undisputably world class, and I have a horrible suspicion that he won't play again this season, which would mean him missing the summer trip. For all I know, he's out of World Cup contention already. I can't make plans around someone who has no idea when he might be fit.

"But you work with what you have. Wilkinson is in the side now and with his kicking game, he may be the best thing that ever happened to Mike Catt. We have a right-foot, left-foot combination at 10 and 12 and Jonny's style makes it much easier for Mike to play the physical game he's best suited to. I think Catty is looking at a huge opportunity here."

Just as England have a huge opportunity to lay down another World Cup marker tomorrow, Woodward, contracted until August of next year but prepared to measure himself only by the events of October and November, attaches enormous importance to this farewell Five Nations fixture with the Welsh.

"The Five Nations is a tournament, just as the World Cup is a tournament, and I want to win tournaments," he says. "People are always banging on about developing players in the Five Nations so we can compete with the southern hemisphere countries, but I look at it from the opposite angle. I'd rather win a Grand Slam than beat South Africa, definitely. The Springbok Test was a friendly. The match tomorrow is no friendly."