The Woodward blueprint for international success

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The Independent Online

As Martin Johnson prepares for the toughest possible introduction to the international coaching arena with matches against the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa this autumn, it mirrors the beginning of what turned out to be the most successful period in English rugby history 11 years ago.

Only nine weeks into his new job in November 1997 and Clive Woodward was preparing to take on Australia in the first of four internationals. It was the start of a new era in English rugby.

Woodward had long been regarded as something of a maverick in coaching circles and was intent on bringing the philosophies that had made him a successful businessman into the national set-up, convinced they could be applied to elite sport to great effect.

Although England could only draw two and lose two of those four Tests, Woodward had begun to lay the foundations that would see England to World Cup glory six years later.

We look back at the key principles Woodward began to apply, and how the same approach could help Johnno.


For his first international against Australia at Twickenham in 1997, Woodward threw caution to the wind, giving debuts to five players - centre Will Greenwood, wing David Rees, hooker Andy Long, full-back Matt Perry and No.8 Tony Diprose - and appointing a new captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, whom he had worked with at Under-21 level.

England drew 15-15 in a game they should have won, but Woodward learned invaluable lessons for future success.

Long never played for England again but Dallaglio and several others - Greenwood, Mike Catt, Kyran Bracken, Jason Leonard - went on to become integral members of his World Cup-winning squad.

Lessons for Johnno

The England coach needs to find out what his players are made of. There are question marks over first-choice selections in every position and Johnno will doubtless start with some players who will play little or no part in future teams. But by picking the players showing the best form in the opening weeks of the Premiership, he will be making a strong statement that his side will be picked on form. It is an approach that many coaches promise but seldom deliver. But players such as Tom Croft, Danny Care and Toby Flood should be told to go out and play without fear of the axe.


The following week, England travelled to Old Trafford to take on the mighty All Blacks, at the time the number one side in the world and with a fully fit Jonah Lomu back in the side after a long absence. Although England went down 25-8, they handled the big man impressively."As a player or coach I never saw the benefits of buying into the mystique of other teams or individual players,"Woodward said."To focus your attention on your opponents' strength inevitably leads to revering or fearing them.You cannot spend enough time analysing your opponents, but this needs to create respect and not fear."

Lessons for Johnno

This is not the time to obsess about the threat posed by the likes of Dan Carter, Bryan Habana or Matt Giteau and trying to formulate plans to negate them. It's about England implementing a style of rugby that utilises their strengths and creates try-scoring opportunities, something they have been desperately short of.


The week in the lead up to the Old Trafford Test saw the presence in the England camp for the first time of Phil Larder, specialist defence coach (bottom). The former rugby league coach, described as "revolutionary" by Woodward, transformed England into the most miserly team in world rugby.

Lessons for Johnno

Defence coach Mike Ford took heavy flak in the wake of the summer tour to New Zealand which saw England leak nine tries in two Tests. The ease with which Ma'a Nonu (right) cut through the English midfield and the All Blacks stretched an overworked defence out wide was cause for serious concern. Charlie Hodgson paid for a missed tackle on Nonu with his England place, now it's up to Ford and his team to pick combinations that are equally effective in attack and defence. Strong defenders like Riki Flutey and Olly Barkley must surely feature at inside centre.


At Twickenham a week later, England produced an errorridden display, going down 29-11 to South Africa. They weren't helped by losing fly-half Mike Catt to injury at halftime and suffering three more injuries in the final quarter, but while Woodward admitted afterwards they were beaten by the better team, he could see his side beginning to take shape."We were improving as a team, gaining in confidence. The elite experience was strengthening," said Woodward.

Lessons for Johnno

England fans would struggle to come up with England's first choice starting XV such has been the continual chopping and changing of playing personnel in recent seasons. It's time to start picking the strongest side and keeping faith with them for the duration of the autumn Tests, regardless of results. The secret of Woodward's success in the run up to the 2003 World Cup was continuity.


England saved their best for the final international of the autumn, In a rematch with the All Blacks at Twickenham, they produced a fantastic performance despite the match ending in another draw, 26-26. England produced something approaching the 15-man rugby Woodward aspired to.

However, they faded badly in the final 20 minutes when they were in a position to win the match."Unfortunately,we were nowhere near their level of fitness, either mentally or physically,"Woodward said later."We would concentrate on the aspects of the game that let us down." Six years later under fitness coach Dave Reddin, England arrived at the 2003 World Cup as the fittest,most powerful side in world rugby.

Lessons for Johnno

England have struggled to reach a level of consistency for a full 80 minutes over the last two seasons. There is no questioning their physical conditioning, but mentally they seem fallible.Woodward's T-Cup mantra - Thinking Clearly Under pressure - is never more appropriate than now.


Woodward noted at the end of the autumn series in which they had drawn two and lost two, that England had visibly improved game on game, the longer they were together as a team. It convinced the England coach to create more time for the squad to be together."The real value of the autumn internationals was to bring home to everyone, just how high our standards had to be in order to compete, and ultimately, to win," he said.

Lessons for Johnno

Player access, such a bone of contention for Woodward throughout his reign, has apparently been resolved thanks to the new eight-year agreement between the RFU and Premier Rugby which guarantees Johnson access to his squad 13 or 14 days before the start of the autumn internationals and the Six Nations. Lack of preparation is no longer an excuse thanks to the full co-operation of the clubs who will receive compensation for the loss of their players to international duty.

This story was sourced from International Rugby News