Sir Clive Woodward took a few seconds yesterday to thank the Rugby Football Union for their support over the seven turbulent and ultimately triumphant years leading into England's World Cup victory in Australia last November. Unfortunately for the RFU, he had spent the previous hour ripping into them with unprecedented savagery.
Sir Clive Woodward took a few seconds yesterday to thank the Rugby Football Union for their support over the seven turbulent and ultimately triumphant years leading into England's World Cup victory in Australia last November. Unfortunately for the RFU, he had spent the previous hour ripping into them with unprecedented savagery. He described the committee men of Twickenham as "toothless" and "apathetic"; he accused them of compromising on potential greatness. Whatever the terms of the head coach's severance package, they did not include a confidentiality agreement.
Woodward shared the top table with the union's chief executive, Francis Baron, and the chairman, Graeme Cattermole. If the three men were seated within five feet of each other, their views were entire galaxies apart. Baron, an acknowledged master of boardroom diplomacy, could not resist the occasional angry riposte to Woodward's tirade, but spent most of his time staring into the middle distance with a curious expression - half-smile, half-wince - on his face. Cattermole, uncomfortable throughout, looked and sounded as though he had just been rucked by the All Blacks.
Both chief executive and chairman attempted to mount defences of the RFU's handling of the Woodward affair, but for the lion's share of the proceedings, they were forced to listen to the most successful coach in English rugby history telling them where they were going pear-shaped. Woodward even forced them onto the back foot on the subject of his successor, Andy Robinson, who was appointed "acting head coach" on Thursday. "I hope Andy won't be 'acting' anything when the November internationals come around," Woodward proclaimed. "That would not be acceptable. It's nothing to do with me now, but he gets my vote to do the job on a proper basis." There were three main themes in Woodward's long and pointed farewell address: his full commitment to coaching the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand next summer; his rejection of reports linking him with an immediate move into professional football with Southampton or anyone else; and the venting of his spleen over the Elite Player Scheme, which governs the England coaching team's access to Test personnel. He did not hold back on any of those subjects. On the EPS, he was positively lethal.
"When we returned from the World Cup, I wanted and expected someone to say to me: 'Clive, you've done it. What do you want now?' That didn't happen. Instead, I found a lot of apathy; I found myself involved in the same old meetings, having the same old discussions with the same old people. Almost from the moment the plane landed, I felt totally out of control. I wanted more from the union - more training days with the players, more influence over the way they were treated - and ended up with less. I had a clear plan, and it was watered down.
"I wasn't prepared to compromise on a winning formula, and when you find yourself in that frame of mind - when you are saddened and annoyed by what is going on - it is important to move aside and let someone else fight the battle. Andy Robinson, who has my complete support, thinks he can work within the system as it stands. I hope he's right. I can't work in the system, because I don't have control of the players. You can't do this job - which I still think of as the best in the world - through 12 Premiership directors of rugby, three-quarters of whom aren't English and the remaining quarter of whom are probably after your job anyway.
"There is no point the RFU setting up a world-class coaching team if there are no players to coach. People put these systems in place without being accountable, in the sense that they're not the ones who get sacked if it goes wrong. Who gets sacked? The coach. In my view, you cannot compromise on élite performance. If you watched the Olympics - the rowers, the sprinters, Kelly Holmes - that much is obvious. You win by inches, as we did in Australia last year, because you let nothing get in the way of preparation. I may be in a minority on this issue, but it doesn't mean I'm wrong."
Of course, Woodward has been down this road before. In a sense, he has come full circle. When the RFU appointed him as Jack Rowell's successor in the autumn of 1997, this self-same argument over player access, central contracts and the balance of power between club and international rugby was raging from devoutly amateur Cornwall in the far south-west to Sir John Hall's ruthlessly professional Newcastle side on the other end of the diagonal. Woodward announced himself then as a country-before-club man, and got himself into all manner of political strife. Yesterday, he was able to trot out the old opinions without fear of repercussions.
Baron, a principal architect of the present agreement between Twickenham and the Premiership clubs, was deeply offended by some of Woodward's more rabid comments, and stopped only just short of engaging in a public argument. "We have a coaching structure that is second to none in world rugby," he insisted. "We have the best academies, the best training facilities. We have the best rugby product in the world - the strongest club game - and an England team who hold the World Cup. We do not have everything in place, but we have made enormous advances."
Any continuing advance will be achieved without Woodward's help, for he has no intention of returning to club coaching after the Lions adventure in All Black country - a prospect that excites him as much as anything in his career. While he openly admitted to his growing links with Southampton, he flatly rejected any notion that his friend, the club chairman Rupert Lowe, might persuade him to take up a paid position before next July. What was more, he almost fell off his chair laughing at the suggestion that he might make an early contribution to the fortunes of Sven Goran Eriksson's national team.
"I've applied to take the Football Association's Grade Two coaching course, not manage England," he said, with a bemused shake of the head. "I'm interested in football, and I will certainly need to find myself a job of some sort after the Lions because there is no other role in rugby that interests me, but I'm not stupid. I'm a million miles away from a big job in professional football. For all I know, I'll end up coaching Maidenhead under-nines.
"My commitment now is to the Lions, and it is absolute. There is no way I will take another job of any description until the tour is over. Had I still been England coach, I would have asked the RFU to get Andy to take the team through next year's Six Nations' Championship and let me concentrate on the Lions. As it turns out, this is even better from the Lions' perspective. I intend to put 100 per cent effort into this, and part of that effort will go towards ensuring that the players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as England, go on the tour in good shape. If I have to pin them against a wall, I'll do it. If we prepare properly, we'll win. If we fly to New Zealand in the state the England squad flew there during the summer, we'll lose."
After saying his thank-yous and paying his tributes, Woodward departed Twickenham in the knowledge that, while he left it in better shape than he found it, it was still embroiled in the great rugby argument of the age. Are the professional clubs, who play every week in front of ever-increasing crowds, the most important dynamic in the domestic game, or is it England, who play eight or nine times a year? Both Baron and Cattermole understood that their former coach's words had re-opened old wounds, and that the committee-room men who lost the fight with the Premiership clubs eight years ago would soon be agitating for a rematch.
Perhaps this time, the battle will be fought over the Lions rather than England. How much access will the four Welsh provinces offer Woodward, given the fact that they have already fallen out with their national union over release dates and rest periods? If Woodward requests some quality time with Shane Williams but the Neath-Swansea Ospreys turn him down flat and flog their wing to death in the Celtic League instead, there could be hell to pay.
In one sense, Woodward's farewell was a sorry affair. After winning so much and heaping such glory on the English game at international level, could he not have papered over the cracks for the sake of appearances? On reflection, though, that would have been an act of self-betrayal. As rugby administrators, rival coaches and the odd recalcitrant player - step forward, Richard Cockerill - would readily confirm, Woodward has always made it his business to say what he thinks, even if he occasionally thinks contradictory thoughts in the space of a few seconds.
"This decision was not a spur of the moment thing," Woodward said. "Over a couple of months in the summer, I came to the conclusion that if the guy at the top doesn't believe, he should step down. That's what I'm doing. I'm sad, very sad, to be going, but it's time to move on." Just one thing before you disappear, Clive. Can England retain the World Cup in 2007? "Actually," he said. "I think we can." He could have said "they" rather than "we", but he didn't. He still cares, despite it all.Reuse content