Rare case of English sporting excellence should drag us from our beds

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The Independent Online

Whatever the punishments inflicted by Friday night, Englishmen still in their beds at 8am this morning should consider themselves accursed.

Beckhamed-out we may be. Underwhelmed by the mopping up of Zimbabwe, perhaps. Sceptical of Monty's chances of holding it together in the US Open, no doubt. But all of that is even more reason to tune in to Clive Woodward's England when they take on the All Blacks in Wellington.

Here we have a standard, a force, a piece of work that, when you hold it up, gives off a glow of solid achievement - and also a rebuke to so many of the irresolute patterns elsewhere in our sporting lives.

It is true to say that Woodward isn't everybody's cup of tea. Some argue that at times he has shown evidence of being at least halfway off his rocker. He has been accused of self-aggrandisement and empire-building. Maybe. But let's look at that empire for a moment - and let's compare it to the continuing shambles of, say, English cricket.

What Woodward has done, in a reign which some say should have been cut short after defeat by South Africa in the last World Cup, is relentlessly stick his head over the parapet. The result is a world-class England squad which has this week once again performed one of the ultimate achievements at the highest level of sport. It has got under New Zealand rugby's skin.

There have been complaints of English negativity from the Kiwis after the victory over the Maoris, a suggestion that a new All Black team, inspired by the flowering of controlled creativity in Carlos Spencer, will have too much wit, too much sheer freedom of thought and action, for the team that has been built so methodically by Woodward and his cadre of coaches.

Perhaps - perhaps not. The point is that the England manager has gone to Wellington to put down a marker with his strongest team - indeed it is the one which flattened Irish dreams of their first Grand Slam since the days of Jackie Kyle with such massive authority in Dublin a few months ago.

Woodward, unlike the good but hopelessly compromised pro Duncan Fletcher, who coaches a cricket team run by committee and an operating technique still rooted in the mid-twentieth century, has been given the means to do a job, and he has done it relentlessly.

He knows he is not the best coach in the world, but he has had the nerve to delegate, to surround himself with good men and potential rivals. The Rugby Football Union, not famous for its easy progress to smooth professionalism, has got one thing supremely right. It has picked its man and given him a chance to develop a genuine body of progressive work.

Jonathan Davies, one of the last Welshmen to consistently threaten the progress of the "New English Model Army" first formed by Geoff Cooke in the late 1980s, never thought that one day he would join in a call to summon not just rugby lovers but anyone interested in proper standards in sport from their beds to watch England so early on a Saturday morning.

"Why should the nation get up so early? Well, there is a clear comparison to make," says Davies. "Imagine an England football team playing Brazil in the Maracana stadium with a real chance of winning. That would command everyone's attention and I really think there is a parallel now.

"Woodward has had the courage to stick his neck out and demand a support system, and to be fair to the RFU they have backed him strongly.

"The fascination about Saturday's game is that England are looking for a new dimension," added the great Welsh fly-half, "They are looking to get a really big scalp away from Twickenham. If they can do that they will have made a big statement about themselves. I think everyone should recognise that this is an effort that really deserves widespread support. British sport needs examples, it needs excellence, and here is a team that has reached out for that."

It is a formidable statement of support from beyond the English lines, and another reason to maybe break out the Alka-Seltzer.

Will Jonny Wilkinson contain Spencer? Will he attach himself with such sufficient force to the virtuoso's ribs? Will Wilko underpin the power of the English pack with his raking kicks? Will Martin Johnson find the best of himself again in the leadership role in which he has been preserved by Woodward despite heavy criticism of the darker side of the captain's nature? Will the zeal and new panache of the All Blacks founder against a will forged with a level of application rare in the direction of British sport?

They are questions which Clive Woodward has shaped down the years and they are the kind that should move the spirit. And get us out of bed.

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