Woodward dismisses Springbok rumours

Coach pours scorn on South African whispers as England prepare for Six Nations opener
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The Independent Online

Clive Woodward had quite enough on his mind yesterday without being written up as the central character in one of the more bizarre sporting yarns of recent years.

Clive Woodward had quite enough on his mind yesterday without being written up as the central character in one of the more bizarre sporting yarns of recent years.

Reports in South Africa claimed England's World Cup-winning coach had expressed a keen interest in succeeding the humiliated Rudi Straeuli as strategist-in-chief of the Springboks - a suggestion that came as a considerable shock to Woodward's employers at Twickenham and an even bigger surprise to the man himself, who would have applied for a job on the Titanic had he wanted to join a sinking ship.

Woodward was preparing to fly to Rome for Sunday's opening Six Nations Championship match with Italy when rumours of the alleged Bokke connection came seeping across the equator. The coach immediately denied having any contact with the South African Rugby Football Union and reminded all those who would listen that he had signed a four-year extension to his Twickenham contract last September, and was also committed to coaching the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand next year.

The struggling South Africans are certainly looking for a new coach; indeed, the top brass are scheduled to reveal his identity today after an exhaustive selection process involving a number of familiar names - Chester Williams, Rudy Joubert, Gert Smal, Carel du Plessis - and a handful of rank outsiders, including Jerome Paarwater of Western Province and Dumisani Mhani of Border.

Needless to say, Woodward's name has not featured on any shortlist, apart from those compiled by fantasists. Even so, members of the Springbok hierarchy appeared to give credence to the story. "Clive's interest was a surprise to us, but we reached the decision that we would stick with South African candidates at this time," said Brian van Rooyen, the SARFU president.

There again, this was the union that sanctioned Straeuli's embarrassingly brutal pre-World Cup boot camp near Pretoria, at which players were forced to train naked and fight with each other. To the best of anyone's knowledge, Woodward has not used such motivational techniques at the deeply respectable England base in Surrey and would therefore be out of kilter with current South African thinking. Understandably, he was more concerned with the threat posed by Italy - an Italy about whom he knows next to nothing, despite the fact that the game is a mere 48 hours away.

John Kirwan, his opposite number, delayed naming his side, citing a sudden spate of injuries. Mirco Bergamasco, Denis Dallan, Silvio Orlando and Santiago Dellape all failed to take a full part in training yesterday, and Kirwan said he would consult the medical staff before finalising his selection.

Whatever the outcome of today's fitness tests and physiotherapy sessions, England know they face a stern test of discipline and application at Stadio Flaminio. Italy's victories in this tournament, against Scotland in 2000 and Wales last season, came on the opening weekends when their more experienced opponents were short of rhythm and familiarity. As Lawrence Dallaglio, England's part-Italian captain, pointed out before heading to the airport, there is an obvious banana-skin element to this fixture.

"Everyone will lift their games against us, because we're England and because of what we achieved in Australia," he said. "I am under no illusion about the nature of this contest. I know how I would play against the world champions; I'd be at their throats from the start. This match gives us the chance to set our standards. The entire rugby community will be watching us, so we need to get it right."

Dallaglio, a good Catholic boy who studied at Ampleforth, was one of the England players who accepted the offer of a brief audience with the Pope at the Vatican today - an offer that was subsequently withdrawn when a delegation of French bishops suddenly surfaced in Rome.

"A few of the team were looking forward to it, but the visit is off," confirmed Woodward. If he thought he detected the whiff of a Latin conspiracy in the air, he did not make an issue of it. This was probably a good move. After the peculiar rumblings down South Africa way, a second outbreak of intrigue would have been at least one too many.