The Rugby World Cup: On the edge of judgement day

The Interview: Clive Woodward, the England coach
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PEERING AT the rocks 200 feet below, clutching the rope in his right hand and pushing his heart back down his throat, Clive Woodward must have wondered whether this World Cup lark hadn't gone a bit too far already. It was only a game, after all, and he was only the coach.

But there is something quite puritanical in the Woodward character, an instinct for justice which demanded that if his players were to be sent helter skelter face-first down the edge of a Devon cliff at his behest, then he had to show them how to do it. The other bits of the Marine training camp, wading across the muddy shores of the River Dart carrying planks of wood, that sort of stuff could be left for the boys. He should be up, he reckoned, for the scary bits.

So, Woodward leant forward and, with the applause of his England squad ringing in his ears, shimmied down the cliff. "The rope across your chest is the brake and at the top you swing your arm out to release the brake and run down the cliff. It's weird, unbelievable. But I had to do it. I just had to do it." And so did Jonny Wilkinson, who gets vertigo on the third floor of the team hotel.

Seasoned campaigners, those who believe that the ideal callisthenic for rugby involves a pint mug and a few arm curls in the direction of the lips, dismissed the three-day exercise with the Marines as just another publicity stunt by a coach whose image is far more polished than his record. It is hard to imagine the bespectacled figure across the boardroom table at the offices of the Rugby Football Union propping up the bar of the Dog and Fox, regaling all and sundry with tales of derring-do into the early hours. Less rugby hearty, more professor of mathematics; that is Woodward from the outside. What Woodward wanted to gain from his squad's brush with the Marines was not some fading idea of team-building - a word he hates - but a sense of perspective.

"We were getting a little precious about ourselves," he said. "Was that a good training session or wasn't it and why and all that sort of stuff. Down there, they were talking to people who'd been in situations they shouldn't have got out of. They'd been in Iran, in the Falklands and Northern Ireland and so their commitment to the team was not some game, it was a matter of life and death. The players saw what training they do, they saw their attention to detail and they saw the number of times things go wrong. Even the guys who'd been around a while, the Jerrys [Guscott] and Jasons [Leonard], wanted to know when we're going back."

The standards of fitness and preparation of this England side are unsurpassed, quite possibly in the history of our nation's sport. If they fail to become the first side from the northern hemisphere to win the Rugby World Cup, lack of support and organisation, the traditional whingeing grounds of past England coaches, cannot tumble out of the locker marked "excuses".

Glenn Hoddle would have killed for the sort of consistent access to his World Cup squad Woodward has enjoyed over the past three months. For once, England are doing it properly, not confronting the rest of the world with one hand tied behind their backs. Woodward must take the credit for that.

After digging himself a few holes in the early days of his tenure at headquarters, he has developed acute political antennae, using the civil war within the game to fight England's corner. But with the power comes responsibility, and even a man as calm as Woodward admits that having two years' work, never mind his own reputation and the sporting honour of a country not exactly flush with success, shoehorned into the odd 80 minutes' worth of mayhem is a sobering prospect. Since he succeeded Jack Rowell in 1997, Woodward has always asked to be judged in the World Cup and not before. The postponement of the verdict is a blessing.

Woodward's England team have yet to capture the imagination of the public, as the swathes of empty seats at their warm-up internationals indicated. To be honest, the Barbour brigade don't quite know what to make of a man so blind to the international inadequacies of Mike Catt. They saw Woodward leaping from his seat once, but that was when England scored a try against the All Blacks; otherwise, his style has been aloof, his sides short of character. Only fleetingly have we seen glimpses of the southern-hemisphere fluency so widely advertised. Too often, England have attempted to split the atom when the question was a simple two plus two.

"I've had to make a lot of changes in the team," he says. "I'm not trying to make excuses but when you lose players like Guscott, [Will] Greenwood and [Paul] Grayson, the cupboard is pretty bare, particularly in the back division. There are massive expectations on the England side and, at times, we have lacked that killer instinct. We should have killed the game off against Wales, we got it all wrong against France having just drawn with the All Blacks. In my time as coach, I've had some big, big highs and some big, big lows. But these are all the sorts of things you've got to go through and I hope we can have this conversation again in mid-November when we've come through it all successfully.

"I was hoping they would sack John Hart as coach of the All Blacks after he'd lost five out of five. I was really hoping they would change because he's a quality coach, the same as Nick Mallett [South Africa]. But they made absolutely the right decision in terms of winning the World Cup. You've got to go through the hard times to toughen up." Some formative influences, like taking a side to the southern hemisphere without its 20 best players, he could have done without.

Woodward is very much the modern coach in a sport deeply suspicious of change. A visit to the University of Colorado American football programme last year convinced him of the importance of specialised coaching. There were 14 of them, offensive, defensive, kicking, special-team coordinators, all for a college football team who played 12 games a season. He brought in Phil Larder from rugby league to strengthen defensive technique, drafted in John Mitchell and Brian Ashton, creating in Larder's words "an environment that's special, that when you come into you don't want to leave".

Larder says the England set-up now is streets ahead of what he left behind in rugby league. "Two members of the board at my last club were running a bus company. Clive's got a physical education background, played to international level and has been a successful businessman. He puts a lot of thought into what he does."

So what else do we know about Woodward? That he part- owns a computer leasing company, spent five years in Australia, has a single-figure golf handicap and is a dedicated family man, within the acknowledged restraints of a job which demands his complete attention. He was an intelligent footballer, for Leicester, England and the Lions, not the bravest, for sure, but a sinewy runner and a brilliant tactical kicker in a frustratingly negative national side. Much of his coaching philosophy, he says, is based on the faults of the structure he observed as a player. The overcoached methods, the underprepared physiques, the lack of personal attention.

It was indicative of Woodward's relationship with his squad that Lawrence Dallaglio made straight for his coach's front door when the full extent of the drug accusations against him were revealed in the News of the World. Officials at his club, Wasps, couldn't find him. Woodward's loyalty to Dallaglio was regarded as misguided in some quarters, but has since been fully vindicated.

"All this stuff about us being friends was nonsense. He was my captain. I've never been out for a drink with him in my life, but he's been round to my house for dinner. He's a good guy, with a nice wife, two kids and I wanted him in my World Cup squad. But the issue was not that, the most important thing for Lawrence was not the World Cup, it was to clear his name and I think he's done that. I hope I wouldn't have acted any differently for any other member of my team."

The extent of Woodward's merits will be laid bare over the next five weeks. The Italians arrive at Twickenham next Saturday, but, though he admits that every coach is just a game away from disaster, it is the following 80 minutes which could decide the fate of England's World Cup campaign. Defeat by the All Blacks would probably consign England to a punishing - if vaguely familiar - schedule: a quarter-final against the South Africans, a semi-final with Australia before a final rendezvous with the All Blacks. "I'm not really concerned," Woodward says. "I don't think anyone has won the World Cup by losing a match. You want to win every game and to beat the All Blacks would be a massive lift."

Failure is not a feature of Woodward's impressively varied cv, nor does it infiltrate his thinking on the eve of his biggest challenge. "I'll know more about myself and how good I am after this. The country is desperate for success and I genuinely believe we've got a great chance. We're fully prepared and we're at home." It will take more than rope and guts to guide him back to earth if he is proved right.