Woodward's way weds style to guile

The England coach is a self-contradictory enigma but his vision and gift for leadership has taken his side to the brink of a Grand Slam
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The Independent Online

On the face of it, Clive Woodward is the most open and approachable England rugby coach of modern times, as well as the first to earn a full-time salary. Relaxed with his players, accommodating with the media, he takes pleasure in success and accepts the blame for failure. There is no psychological armour around the squad, no poisonous suspicion of outsiders. His man-management skills are such that he has been able to transfer the team captaincy twice in the last year without becoming the target of recriminatory headlines. But you don't get to the threshold of a Grand Slam without being something more than simply one of the chaps.

"He was the sort of person that you never really got too close to," said Paul Dodge, who formed a celebrated centre-threequarter partnership with him for Leicester, England and the Lions throughout the early 1980s. "You'd think you knew him, but when you sat down and really thought about it, you didn't."

Inscrutability is no bad quality in a leader of men, as long as it is combined with an ability to enthuse and inspire. Not everyone, of course, can be persuaded to fall into line. There will always be the occasional Richard Cockerill, who objected to receiving an e-mail that read: "If you insist on continuing to play with England the style of rugby you play with Leicester, I cannot pick you." But Woodward's ability to pick himself up from the demoralising experience of England's elimination from the 1999 World Cup at the quarter-final stage, and to carry largely the same bunch of players to the brink of greater achievements, form the mosteloquent tribute to his resilience and his motivational ability.

His other salient characteristic is an independent spirit. "That's Clive," people often say when they're discussing his behaviour, as if any further attempt at analysis would be a waste of time. Perhaps his bosses, behind the closed doors of Twickenham's committee rooms, say something else when confronted with fresh evidence of his insistence on going his own way.

"He's very single-minded, very autocratic, and probably unmanageable," said another old teammate, Peter Wheeler, now Leicester's chief executive. "That would give some people a lot of problems. What he's saying is: 'I'm the England coach, and this is what I'm going to do. If I don't produce the goods, sack me. Otherwise let me get on with it.' That's his attitude. And that will always cause difficulties, especially in a game run by councils and committees. These are people who are accountable for costs and performance to their members, and they like to feel that they've got a handle on what's being done and what's being spent. They'd like to have some accountability for it. Clive prefers to do it his way."

And Clive's way, to the chagrin of some Rugby Football Union purse-string pullers, is the five-star way. In 1998, for instance, on the infamous "Tour to Hell", he took exception to the quarters reserved in a Cape Town Holiday Inn and decamped to the city's finest hotel, putting the whole squad on his personal AmEx card and sending Twickenham the bill. A year later, the World Cup preparation involved not just an over-publicised training session with the Royal Marines in Devon but also a three-week warm-weather workout in a luxury resort off the Queensland coast.

It was that kind of apparent self-indulgence which allowed Brad Johnstone, then the Fiji coach, to make his famous jibe about "15 guys with nothing more than a rugby ball playing against 15 guys with laptops and fast cars". But Peter Wheeler sees it as Woodward's way of establishing a certain level of demand and expectation. "Clive sets great store by demanding professionalism from the players in every way, but he's also committed to giving them the best possible facilities and expertise to help them produce their best, incorporating their families and everything. No expense is spared. His critics would say that he spends too much money on that side of things. But it generates great loyalty and commitment from the players."

A successful business career presumably gives Woodward not just a high credit rating but also the confidence to back his own judgement. Less easy to understand is a gift for self-contradiction which somehow forms the link between the independence and the inscrutability, and which baffles even those who imagine that they know him. His recent statements about his future with England - saying, on the day before the game in Rome, that he wouldn't tour South Africa in the summer without a new contract, and then saying something completely different after the match -rendered his mentality even more opaque than before.

While there seems to be no guile behind the confusion, there is also a sense that this is a man with a hinterland. "He keeps his private life away," Dodge said. What we do know is that Clive Ronald Woodward was born 44 years ago in Ely, Cambridgeshire, to a service family, and educated at HMS Conway Cadet College in Anglesea and at Loughborough College, where he qualified as a teacher of physical education. On graduating, he joined Rank Xerox as a trainee salesman and Leicester Tigers as a hot-shot centre.

At Welford Road he was coached by the legendary Chalkie White, whose squad included not just Dodge and Wheeler but also Dusty Hare, Les Cusworth and, eventually, Rory Underwood. "I don't know what it was that Chalkie had," Dodge remembered, "but he could get everybody to play. He was full of ideas for back moves, always interested in trying new things. And with the backs he had, he could do those things."

"We were very pleased when Clive arrived," Wheeler said. "He wasn't a local man, and he'd already had a run-out with Harlequins. He was a good player - he had pace and skill, and although he certainly wasn't what you'd call a stocky player, his defence was always good. His speed allowed him to close people down. I guess he wasn't unlike Will Greenwood,although not as tall."

Woodward slotted in at outside centre, quickly forming a durable partnership with Dodge. "We played an open, expansive style of rugby that inspired everyone," Wheeler continued. "We scored a lot of tries from all over the place. The best coaches have to be pragmatic, and we happened to develop that style because we had a lot of good backs and not much in the way of forwards. In those days you had to make do with what you'd got at the club, or whoever came along. And I'd be pretty sure that while Clive was at Loughborough he'd have spotted the sort of squad that we had, and realised that it would benefit him."

It was a happy and harmonious dressing-room. "You could tell straight away that Clive was a good footballer, and an all-round sportsman," Dodge said. "With Dusty Hare being a big Forest fan, there was always a lot of banter about soccer. Clive trained as hard as anybody, and he liked a bit of fun. Not tooserious. No side to him at all."

First capped by England in 1980, when he came on against Ireland as a replacement for Tony Bond, who had broken his leg, he went on to play in all four matches in Bill Beaumont's Grand Slam season. In all he made 21 appearances in the white shirt, 14 of them alongside Dodge, scoring four tries.

There were also two Lions tours. At Port Elizabeth in 1980, playing out of position on the wing and with the series in the balance, late in the match he tapped the ball into touch and turned his back while the Springboks took a quick throw-in and were on their way to the try that won the match, and with it the rubber. In New Zealand three years later he was not picked for the Tests.

Port Elizabeth was not his only calamity. In the first game of the 1981 Five Nations' Championship, in Cardiff, he was lured offside by an outrageous dummy at the base of the scrum to provide SteveFenwick with a match-winning penalty. But he redeemed himself in the very next match, a 23-17victory over the Scots, when, with Twickenham in ecstasy, he danced around half a dozen tackles before touching down.

In 1984, aged 28, he emigrated to Sydney, playing and coaching at the Manly club. Three years later, Leicester toured Australia. "You could see that he was really into it," said Dodge, who is in no doubt that the years Down Under shaped Woodward's philosophy. A visit to the Institute of Sport at Canberra inspired the boldness that he brings to the selection of young players such as Matt Perry, Jonny Wilkinson and Ben Cohen for England.

When he came home, to set up his computer-leasing business in Maidenhead and to coach lowly Henley, it was his tactics that won attention. "He made his initialreputation here with a style of play that he'd learnt over there," Peter Wheeler said, "with the backs sitting up flat, in their opponents' faces, rather than lying deep, in the comfort zone. The handling had to be slicker and quicker because they didn't have so much space, and they were closer to the gain line. Henley had some success with that, and it was noticed."

After taking London Irish to promotion in 1996, a disagreement with the committee led to his departure. And in the spring of 1997 he got a distress call call from Bath, where the coach, Brian Ashton, had been sacked, and the director of rugby, John Hall, had resigned. In the space of a few weeks, he inspired a series of crushing victories over Gloucester, Sale, and two of his old clubs, Leicester and London Irish.

That autumn, the RFU called. Having failed to reach agreement with Graham Henry or Ian McGeechan in the wake of Jack Rowell's departure, Twickenham took a chance and gave him a three-year contract at a six-figure salary. Some of those who knew him predicted a short and stormy relationship. "It's a risk, with Clive," Peter Wheeler said, "because it can go spectacularly right or spectacularly wrong. When you choose him, you're taking that risk. If you want somebody who's going to make progress reports to sub-committees on a regular basis, he's not your man. He's his own man."

Unabashed by the last-gasp failure to win the 1999 Grand Slam, and perhaps emboldened by the memory of ending the Springboks' 17-match winning streak, Woodward rashly invited us to judge him on the results of the World Cup. "That wasn't like him," Wheeler observed. "He probably didn't mean it the way it came out. Or maybe he meant the next World Cup. But that's Clive." Either way, after Jannie De Beer had drop-kicked England to death in Paris, the coach had to endure strident calls for his sacking - not least from the tarnished totem of English rugby, Will Carling. But he hung in there, and saw his team get off their knees to make significant progress in this year's SixNations matches.

"There was quite a lot of stuff in the World Cup that you couldn't readily understand," Wheeler said. But Woodward's intellectual qualities include an ability to learn from his mistakes, and England's victories over Ireland, France, Wales and Italy have been impressive not just for the squad's physical strength and the shrewdness of the selection but for the players' ability to treat each match as a separate challenge, and to think on their feet.

What is his secret? Paul Dodge looked back to his achievements with Henley. "That was when he proved his worth as a coach. To get a lower-division team to play that way, he had to give them confidence - and that seems to be the key to the way he coaches, looking at England this year."

Maybe, as David Campese suggested in Rome, England are still not ready to beat the southern hemisphere teams when it really counts. Maybe there are people at the RFU who, after Paris, not to mention the latest set of hotel bills, would like to have seen the back of Woodward. But isn't it ironic that, of all England's national teams, it should be the rugby XV who, against a background of political chaos and administrative conflict, are most obviously blessed with a regime offering modern attitudes, faith in youth, tactical imagination and clarity of vision? Obviously, it can't last. Obviously, it should.