Woodward the outsider who brought home the big prize

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The Independent Online

The record should speak for itself, in mega-decibels: a record-breaking run of 14 consecutive Test victories, a Grand Slam, a first ever victory over the Wallabies in Australia, a first win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in three decades. Oh yes, and a World Cup as well.

The record should speak for itself, in mega-decibels: a record-breaking run of 14 consecutive Test victories, a Grand Slam, a first ever victory over the Wallabies in Australia, a first win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in three decades. Oh yes, and a World Cup as well.

If Sir Clive Woodward never coaches another rugby team in his life - and should he turn his back on the 2005 British and Irish Lions in favour of a dalliance with some football team on the south coast, that may well be the case - he will still stand tall on the high peaks of English sporting achievement.

But the record does not speak for itself with anything like sufficient grandeur. With Woodward, a gloriously unpredictable centre during his playing days and an equally unorthodox coach, the journey was infinitely more fun than the destination, even though the destination was the Olympic Stadium in Sydney on a wet November night, with the Webb Ellis Trophy up for grabs and Jonny Wilkinson caressing the ball towards the sticks in the last minute of extra time.

Woodward spent a good deal of his childhood, and developed much of his immense sporting prowess, in Wales, yet he wrapped himself in the flag of St George from the moment he understood that he was nobody's idea of a Celt.

He spent time in Australia, where he learned as much about the possibilities of coaching as he did about business, and on his return he did brilliant things with Henley, London Irish and, for a few remarkable months, Bath.

He was an outsider, an ideas man convinced of the genius of every thought that passed through his mind, and when England found themselves scratching around for a head man in 1997, they drew a deep breath and took the plunge.

At first, Woodward struggled. If not wholly out of his depth, he could scarcely touch the bottom with his toes pointed downwards. He was a little piece of an international coach, unnaturally developed. He had great optimism, a bottomless reservoir of energy and a clear vision of how England might leave the 19th century and join the rest of the rugby race, led by New Zealand and Australia.

But he was also naïve, both selectorially and politically. He picked the wrong players and backed the wrong causes. It was an extraordinary time, bizarre and thrilling in equal measure.

England lost three of their first five matches under Woodward, and drew the others. But one of those draws, a 26-all epic against a fine All Blacks team, convinced him that the boring old red rose army could actually play this game with a touch of style and a dash of adventure.

Slowly but surely, under Lawrence Dallaglio's brio-fuelled captaincy, England closed the gaps on the best. They drew with the Wallabies, they beat Gary Teichmann's Springboks and they started to impose some order on the French.

Sadly, Woodward lost Dallaglio to a severe dose of the Fleet Street tabloids, although to his eternal credit he sheltered his captain in his hour of need. Happily, Martin Johnson then emerged from the debris of the Dallaglio affair as a leader of unprecedented stature. While the coach famously asked to be judged on the World Cup, he cleverly failed to specify the 1999 tournament. What he really meant, it seems, was the 2003 version, and once England had fallen victim to a difficult fixture schedule in the first competition, they arrived at the second as clear favourites.

This, perhaps, was Woodward's true triumph. England had fielded decent Test sides before, but none as supremely organised and perfectly prepared as this one. The coach had made it his business to throw money - the Scrooge-like RFU's money - at the international set-up.

Lavishly financed, Woodward appointed specialist coaches, fitness gurus, medical staff which would have been the envy of teaching hospitals throughout the land, chefs who could cook Jamie Oliver into a cocked hat, visual awareness experts. All mod cons were provided, human as well as mechanical.

It was almost as if he shamed his players into performing out of their skins by saying: "I've provided the best of everything. Now give me the best you have." That best materialised shortly before the World Cup, when England ran the Wallabies ragged in Melbourne, but there was enough left over to see them home when it really mattered. Woodward has never been short of critics, but even they accepted his single-minded pursuit of excellence as a masterpiece of determination.

And now he is gone - saddened by the retirements of so many front-line players, infuriated by the RFU's refusal to give him carte blanche on Test preparation, tempted by sporting challenges of the round-ball variety. The journey is over, the dust has finally settled. It is time for a rest, and fond memories.

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