Woodward's way inspires Exiles

Tim Glover talks to the coach who has rebuilt promotion-chasing London Irish about amateurism, the importance of teamwork and England's inferiority complex
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The Independent Online
W hile England were beating Wales but losing points for artistic merit, Clive Woodward was having the mick taken out of him by the Irishmen he has adopted at Sunbury. "At least we don't do the haka before a game," Woodward responded, referring to the Kiwi takeover in Dublin.

Woodward, who has just turned 40, was the quintessential Leicester, England and Lions centre who is attempting to lift London Irish into the First Division of English rugby. As Ireland have gone for the New Zealand connection, the Irish Exiles did the reverse, parting company with the former All Black Hika Reid.

"I hate all this crap about the strength of the southern hemisphere countries," Woodward said. "If Will Carling says one more time that we've got to do such and such to beat Australia or the All Blacks, I'll go mad. We're getting neurotic about it and it's total nonsense. Our players are just as good but the structure in Australia is massively better. Our system makes it impossible to play the way England are talking about.

"Geoff Cooke deserves credit for building a team that played to its strengths. It was good enough for Grand Slams but not World Cups. He didn't try to re-invent the wheel. We go to the World Cup and afterwards try and copy everything the others have done. The trouble is that in the next four years they'll have changed everything and moved on. We are not creating anything ourselves. We have to create a game that suits our structure. Instead all we do is bring in New Zealand and Australian coaches."

The word about Woodward has spread quickly and next week he will have talks with the RFU. He has already been approached by England about coaching the Under-21 backs, a job occupied in the national squad by Les Cusworth, his former Leicester team-mate. "I'm pretty ambitious," Woodward said. "Whatever you do you want to get to the top and one day I'd love to coach England. You've got to earn your stripes, prove yourself and you must have the respect of the players. It's important to have been out there three times a week in the cold and wet. As a player I suppose I had a reputation for living in the fast lane, for having fun. Some people don't see that I can be serious. If you're the right guy, you should get the job. If you fail, you should get the sack. That's the businessman in me.

"What I don't agree with is a pecking order which says you've got to do this, this, this and this before getting there. When I played for England the next coach was pre-ordained years ahead because he'd been through the production line. The Aussies are successful because they're good at spotting talent. Michael Hawker has been made chairman of the Australian selectors at 37 and he'll blitz it. He's absolutely the best bloke for the job and he's not 60 years old. You can't imagine it happening in England at any job. You should only get one crack at it and it's vital to have the freedom, so that afterwards, win or lose, you are not in the position of saying `if only'. Is Jack Rowell getting paid? I think that's very dangerous."

In the professional era Woodward is, perhaps, unique. Although he was offered a deal by London Irish his condition for accepting the job was that he would not receive a penny. After 21 caps and two Lions tours, he cut his coaching teeth during a five-year spell in Sydney where he worked for Rank Xerox and captained Manly. He was on a two-year contract, stayed for five and returned to England in 1990 to set up his own business, Sales Finance Ltd, a computer leasing company near Maidenhead. Being his own boss is something that applies to coaching as well as business.

Woodward spent two years at Henley during which they went up two divisions. "Suddenly rugby was very competitive and I found it quite seductive," he said. He was approached by two First Division clubs but the catalyst for London Irish was sitting next to him in his office. Ann Heaver, a partner in Sales Finance, is the sister of the former international John Hewitt and a life member of London Irish.

She got Mike Gibson, the ex-Ireland No 8 and the Exiles' director of rugby, to give Woodward a call. At first he declined but then liked what he saw and that was something that would have deterred most people. "The club was a shambles. They had lost focus, verve, passion, everything. They had been relegated and all the main players, including Jim Staples and Simon Geoghegan, left. It was a good situation in which to offer something, stamp my authority. That kind of appealed to me."

Woodward explained to a bemused committee that he would only do it if he did not get paid. "If you're a professional coach, it is very difficult to bang the drum to people who have just finished work. I couldn't face players who are not getting paid if I was not an amateur myself. You'd lose it. Money changes everything. I have no contract, nothing. You can't put a price on the time I've invested in London Irish but if at any stage they don't like what I'm doing, all they have to do is pick up a phone."

Woodward declined a "significant" offer, took the job on his own terms - "I don't have to worry about putting shoes on my kids" - and is in his second season. One of the first things he did was to appoint Mark Duffelyn, a former captain of Henley and an ex-Leicester hooker, to coach the London Irish forwards. "We are very close to achieving something that two seasons ago I thought was impossible," Woodward said. That something is promotion.

"How we avoided relegation last year was a miracle," Woodward said. "Eight players had left the club and they weren't registering new ones. We were going in with the second team. It could have been terminal. Somehow we managed to survive. It's a very strange place and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. I've learnt to deal with some weird and wonderful characters."

This season the Irish have lost only three league games, two of them, in high-scoring affairs, to Northampton and, with six matches to go, are level in second place with London Scottish. "You don't leave a club when it's been relegated," Woodward said. "There were a lot of bitter and twisted people. Northampton went down and nobody left. I think it's great that Bayfield, Rodber, Dawson and Grayson have done the right thing by the club."

Woodward has brought on a young team at Sunbury, developing, in the exodus of stars, tremendous team spirit. "A lot of the players didn't understand where their allegiance lay. They had never been part of a good and successful club. I'd spent the whole of my career with Leicester and it was just fantastic in every way. Cheque-book rugby won't win in the long term. It's a team game. I thought the way Saracens handled the Michael Lynagh thing was very naive. It was no coincidence that one Saturday they beat Leicester and the next they were stuffed by Orrell. You've got to keep the players on your side."

Under such a policy Gabriel Fulcher, the young Ireland lock who joins the Exiles next month, is not guaranteed a place for the vital, remaining league games. Nor is the Oxford University stand-off David Humphreys but only because Woodward wants to see him play for Ireland. On Tuesday night Woodward was in Belfast, watching Humphreys inspire Ulster to a win over New South Wales.

"The Ulster forwards were destroyed and Humphreys was brilliant. He'd walk into the England side. He's been around for a few years and I can't believe Ireland haven't picked him. They should put him in against France. He's got it, big time. There's no need to coach him. It worries me to death what other coaches say to him when he's not playing for London Irish. It was almost a nightmare to see how well he played in the Varsity match (Humphreys scored all Oxford's 19 points) because of the interest he would attract in other clubs. He's a little gem."

London Irish were due to play Leeds in the fifth round of the Pilkington Cup today but it's not the silverware that concerns Woodward. "There will be some serious teams in the Second Division next year, so this is the time to go up. I would love to be in the position of seeing an Irish team rattle Leicester. Then people could judge me on merit. If we don't get promotion, I'll shoot myself."

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