Thorny times in the Red Rose garden

What's nonsense to Sir Clive looks like a plan to some
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The Independent Online

It is as well England won the World Cup. God only knows what Sir Clive Woodward would have said had they failed in Australia last November. His resignation speech at Twickenham on Friday sounded more like a farewell to arms as he tried to explain why he left what he described as the best job in the world.

It was vintage Woodie, in one breath thanking the Rugby Football Union and the clubs for their fantastic support, in the next lashing them for their apathy and short-sightedness. In his seven-year reign he did it his way, winning the ultimate team prize, for which he was personally rewarded with a knighthood. His ill-timed departure was similarly single-minded.

Woodward described the latest Elite Player Squad programme, which would provide 16 training days on top of the normal preparation for Test matches, as a joke. Nobody in the Zurich Premiership is laughing. The club coaches are annoyed at not being able to play their star names at the beginning of the season because of an 11-week rest period.

Yet Woodward says the break is a total nonsense. "It's a compromise between the clubs and the RFU, and you don't win World Cups by compromising. I'm in a minority of one, but it doesn't mean I'm wrong."

Last year, Woodward was given 20 extra days to prepare for the World Cup. "Since then we've gone backwards," he said. "We should have 24 days, not 16. You can't control your players through 12 directors of rugby, three-quarters of whom aren't English while the other quarter want your job. It's not about contracts, it's about access to the players."

England's players are contracted to the clubs - had the RFU acted eight years ago, the club-country conflict could have been avoided, but that's history. Even so, the strength of the Premiership has been a big factor in England's success.

It is only through compromise that England have managed to become a leading player. Howard Thomas, chief executive of Premier Rugby, said: "You have to be confused when a new agreement which was applauded by everybody, including Clive, suddenly becomes a problem. He did a magnificent job and we've all benefited from it, but the summer defeats in the southern hemisphere meant he was criticised for the first time, and maybe some sparkle fell from the crown. We had a celebrated team and management and now we're looking at our bellybutton again."

Time was when the England coach had a Monday "walk through" with his players; it was increased to seven days, then to 10 and then to the current agreement, which Chris Spice, the RFU's performance director, says is "far in advance" of anything that went before. Woodward recently raised nine issues about the Elite Player scheme and six were implemented. "The structure Clive has left behind is far superior to the one he walked into," Spice said.

Woodward wanted to stay for the three-match autumn series, but Andy Robinson takes over as acting head coach and appears to have the support for the full-time job of Woodward and Francis Baron, chief executive of the RFU, although Kevin Bowring, head of Elite Coaching, could be a contender.

Baron has had better weeks. It started with Lawrence Dallaglio retiring from international rugby, an emotional Woodward pointing out that if England had the right structure the World Cup team would still be intact instead of on their last legs. With Jonny Wilkinson back, the captaincy should not be a problem.

The real problem is that if Woodward (no fools suffered gladly or otherwise) sounded exasperated with life post-World Cup, the feeling from the RFU management was mutual. Woodward had signed a new four-year contract on the eve of the last World Cup, when his terms had been renegotiated. I got an email last week saying Sir Clive would be holding a press conference on 16 September, looking ahead to the November Tests.

A rapturous nation, rationed to images of the England football team's World Cup triumph in 1966, adorned Woodward's head with every available laurel. He also received offers from the business world, and other sports, notably football, for which he declares a passion. "I go to as many games as I can," he said, usually Chelsea or Southampton, where he has become a friend of the Saints chairman, Rupert Lowe.

Will it now be a case of Swing Lowe Sweet Chariot? Not while Woodward fulfils his role of coach to the Lions in New Zealand next summer.

Woodward is serious enough about football to take an FA Grade Two coaching course. He has not applied for Sven's job, or anybody else's. "I'm not stupid," he said. "I'm a million, million miles away from that. I'll start life at the bottom. I'll look forward to it once I've finished with the Lions." Woodward's flirtation with football was reported the day after England won the World Cup, but the RFU were too busy counting the financial bonuses to notice.

It was on 12 August that Woodward rang Baron and said: "Let's have lunch." Over two hours at the Glasshouse Restaurant in Kew, the man described by Baron as a national hero revealed that he had been thinking about his future and it didn't involve Twickenham. On the Glorious 12th Baron did well not to choke on his grouse. "Do you really want to do this?" Baron asked. Woodward paid the bill, although Baron says he has yet to sign his expenses. The timing of the lead shot, deliv-ered with both barrels, could have been better.

The next day, Baron took his family on holiday to Cornwall, and he and Woodward arranged to meet again last Wednesday, by which time the story of the resignation of the mercurial, magnificent maverick had been made public, complete with a plug for his autobiography. In the interim, the only contact between the two had been a voicemail to Baron saying: "Have a good holiday, hope you didn't get caught in the flood, I haven't changed my mind."

Baron, a businessman who held a number of posts unconnected with rugby before transforming the RFU five years ago, knows all about head-hunting - he has denied any interest in taking charge of English cricket - but he was not prepared to bust a gut to keep Woodward.

"You can't not accept his resignation," Baron said. "Over the years we've given him 95 per cent of what he had asked for. We've been criticised for giving him far too much. Woodie uses me as a sounding board. Some of his ideas are brilliant, some not so. This is all about Clive wanting a career change."

Sir Clive says it's about wanting a mile and being offered inches, the distance, he said, England won the Webb Ellis Cup by in Sydney.

It's also about a perfectionist who is unable to recognise he is working in an imperfect environment. Woodward wanted the world. He got the World Cup, but even that wasn't good enough.