The outsider entrusted with Twickenham's tomorrows

The Chris Spice interview: The future of English rugby is in the unlikely hands of a man from another sport and another country. Tim Glover speaks to him
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The Independent Online

If England fail to win the World Cup in 2003, Clive Woodward will be distraught. Chris Spice would be none too happy either, although, for the performance director of the Rugby Football Union, it would not be the end of the world. Just the end of the beginning. His wider and longer goal lies on the horizon.

England already appear to stand head and shoulders above the rest in the Six Nations' Championship and their vision of global domination makes the ground-breaking appointment of Spice a scary proposition. "I'm working in partnership with Clive," Spice said, "but his targets are more immediate. My aims are long-term. If we don't win the next World Cup it won't reflect on me. I'm looking at the 2007 World Cup and beyond." Spice, who joined the RFU in February, worked a six-month probation period after being appointed by the RFU heavyweights Francis Baron, Fran Cotton, Bill Beaumont and, from Sport England, Andy Sutch. Only Baron, the chief executive, is higher than Spice in the pecking order.

The new performance department will be responsible for England's national teams and information and resource support, 12 regional academies, sports medicine and science and elite coach development, which will be headed by Kevin Bowring, the former Wales coach. Investment in the World Class Performance Plan by the RFU and Sport England over the next seven years will be £50m.

"In Chris Spice we have someone with strong management and technical skills and excellent credentials in establishing and running a performance department in a team sport," enthused Cotton. Even so, one of the most striking things about Spice's appointment is his background. His game is hockey and he would have trouble differentiating between a loose head and a tight head. There's something else about Spice. He is, of course, an Aussie.

The last of six children, he was born in Brisbane on Christmas Day 1959. The son of a valuator in antique furniture, he and the Spice collection excelled at hockey, cricket and softball. His uncle, Doug Siggs, captained Australia at hockey, played Sheffield Shield cricket and taught Wally Grout how to keep wicket. Chris and brother Doug played hockey for Australia.

"I also played rugby league as a kid at primary school but I was too small to continue at high school. I went to Ballymore now and again but apart from that I never saw rugby union." In 1992 he took a degree in sports management and graduated to full-time coaching with the renowned Australian Institute of Sport in Perth. "It kicked off my career. For five years we ran a very successful women's hockey programme." Under the guidance of Ric Charlesworth and Spice, Australia won the World Cup in Dublin in 1994 and the gold medal at the Olympics in Atlanta two years later.

"We beat Korea 3-1 in a fantastic final. When we upped the tempo they weren't able to stay with us and it was close to the skill level of the men's game. We had developed a radical style which meant using every player on the bench. A good 16 will win a tournament whereas your best 11 won't. We also developed the physical side, taking it to another level of athleticism. The players were flexible and multi-skilled so defenders could become attackers. It was a soccer philosophy. It changed the thinking of the game.

"We went into Atlanta on a 32-match winning streak and it was suggested that we should throw a game to take the pressure off. It's the sort of thinking that says you have to lose a final to know how to win one. I'd never heard so much nonsense. You can learn as much from winning. The team's focus was on the performance, the process of winning rather than winning itself. It's a matter of continual improvement in everything you do. Whether you win by 60 points or lose by five you're still learning. I'm sure Clive feels the same."

Suitably impressed by the Atlanta standard, the English Hockey Association put him in charge of its world-class performance plan. "I thought England had a real chance of improving but I soon realised how difficult it was. Britain had won the gold at Seoul and it affected them for 10 years. The structures were not in place and there was no investment for the future. The focus was on a narrow group of players, which left very little for the next batch. There was a real lack of expertise across the country. I was based in Milton Keynes but it could have been Antarctica."

For the Sydney Olympics, Spice became Performance Director of the Great Britain hockey teams. "England was a major player but it needed to work with the other home countries. It was a bit like the Lions. There was a lot of politics with people not wanting to let go of what they had."

While addressing the British Olympic Association on his Atlanta experience, Spice met David Shaw, the RFU's academy director. "He said they were looking for a performance director and asked me to scribble a few pencil notes." Such as? "Appoint me," Spice joked.

Two years later he was contacted by a firm of recruitment specialists who had undertaken a worldwide search. "I thought they were using me as a sounding board but they said the candidate didn't necessarily have to have a rugby background. Would I be interested? It came straight out of left field. The fact is no other sport had ever appointed an outsider as a performance director. It was a very brave move by the RFU. I had to think about it."

Spice had a three-hour meeting with the head hunters the day before leaving for the Sydney Olympics. It was not a great homecoming for him. The GB men finished sixth, the women, tipped for a medal, eighth. "I'd had a five-year contract in England and I knew this would be my last job in hockey. A strange bunch, the hockey crowd. We had first-class debriefs and my own development increased."

Waiting for him was a spacious office in the shadow of Twickenham Stadium. However, the game in England was consumed by an uncivil war between the Union and the clubs. "I was warned about the structure and you wondered if it was ever going to sort itself out. I wanted to make sure I had the support of the game as a whole."

Spice found himself on the negotiating team that reached an agreement with the clubs and the players resulting in the concept of England Rugby. "It was a really difficult process and we now have a good deal. For the last three years Clive has been walking on eggshells and it's incredible that he's managed to remain sane. There was a lot of talk about going ahead without the clubs. That was never an option in my view. There's no point in having a performance programme unless it's with the clubs.

"I had to earn their respect. They were thinking 'here's this guy from outside rugby but he does know something about the structure of elite sport'. The management of the players became a priority. It was a nonsense for anybody to say they owned the players. Nobody owns the players. Sometimes they play for their clubs, sometimes for England. They are one asset, a prime asset and they have to be put at the centre."

Spice has found a soulmate in Woodward and is impressed with the scale of England's ambition. He has not found it elsewhere in the country. "Elitism as a concept doesn't sit well here. People want success without really investing in it. Sport in the UK has 32 performance directors. They are not going to win 32 medals. There should be between 10 and 15. Hard decisions have to be made. The idea of sport for all is wrong. Performers at the top don't get the resources they want because people want to keep everyone satisfied. The answer is that somebody like me has to make a lot of noise. I now sit on the Sport England Lottery panel and elite sport is back on the agenda.

"In Australia we started small, concentrating on five sports and building to 10. My experience has helped lay a foundation here but the last thing I want to do is impose an Aussie system on England. The culture is different. One of Clive's strengths is his open mindedness. He knows he can learn a lot from American football, Aussie rules or rugby league and there should be more co-operation in this country between professional sports like rugby, football and cricket. We're in a global market."

The first international Spice attended was England's exuberant victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff seven months ago. "It was fantastic. It wasn't just the style but the way England went about their task. I'm excited at what's happening. I like the way the players handle themselves. They're very businesslike and so are the staff. We're moving the agenda ahead of other nations."

The world-class plan encompasses performance – England and England A; potential – Under-21, students and Under-19; start – Under-14 to Under-16 talent search, and representative sides at Under-16 and 18. Regional academies across the country will serve the 16-21 age group with another 40 satellite sites. At 18, when players can be contracted to clubs, the work will complement their club programme. Sports science will cover fitness, nutrition, medicine and psychology while elite coaching will provide training for England coaches and academy managers. As the senior England teams will be self-funding, Sport England's investment of £8m will be channelled into the junior game.

"We are looking to develop the top half a dozen players in each age group," Spice said. "There's no point in having Under-19 and Under-21 teams unless the best are prepared to play senior professional rugby. Clive is very comfortable with my philosophy of identifying talent early, developing it and being prepared to take some risks with youngsters. It's about building an elite squad of 30 with another 60 underpinning it. Too often people think short term because they are thinking in commercial terms. We will track up to 300 athletes throughout the country, develop individual performance plans and make sure wherever they live they won't be disadvantaged. We'll work with universities and colleges and if a youngster isn't a university candidate that won't stop us delivering the same level of programme to him. There may be 10 more Jonny Wilkinsons out there that nobody has spotted. We've got to broaden our horizons. Some clubs are doing an excellent job, others have barely scratched the surface. Our plan is to work with the clubs to maximise opportunities for them and for us. If we get this right it should be a win-win situation."

Spice is a third generation Australian of English and Irish blood. When he watched the Lions Down Under wasn't he secretly rooting for the Wallabies? "I was in a sea of red jerseys and I can say with hand on heart I was supporting the Lions. It might have been different had it been hockey. I haven't played rugby for Australia. I'm very keen to upspeed my knowledge of rugby but I can bring a whole range of different skills that a rugby person doesn't have.

"I'm fed up with people looking up to the southern hemisphere. I'm hoping they will look at us as a world leader. England have the potential to be number one but the ultimate challenge is staying there. This is what drives me. I just love elite sport."

Biography: Chris Spice

Born: 25 December 1959, Brisbane.

Playing career: Started playing hockey at five, and represented Queensland and Australia.

1992: Joined Australian Institute of Sport as senior hockey coach.

1994: Coached Australia's women to World Cup title.

1996: Coached Australia's women to Olympic gold medal.

1997: Appointed performance director of English Hockey Association, and of Great Britain 18 months later.

2001: Appointed first performance director of Rugby Football Union at Twickenham.