There is only one way to find the winning formula

What worries me is the belief that all we have to do is imbibe from a magic charger

The late Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool FC, used to order his players not to have sex on the eve of a match. He didn't like them playing golf, either, suspecting it of sapping their energy. Imagine that: an Ayrshire man proscribing golf. But sex was worse. "If you're finding it hard to keep your hands off her when you get into bed, then wear boxing-gloves," he would growl. "And if that doesn't work, send her to her mother's."

Sir Clive Woodward, the feted coach of the all-conquering England Rugby Union team, is today to English rugby very much what Shankly was to Liverpool between 1959 and 1974. Shankly inherited a shambles and bequeathed a dynasty; Woodward appears to be doing the same.

Moreover, he is building success like Shankly did it; by tremendous force of character, by astute delegation to a backroom team of formidable expertise and unswerving loyalty, and with a healthy degree of paranoia. Just as Shankly used to send his staff to coaching weekends at the Football Association's training centre at Lilleshall with the stern instruction to "tell 'em nothing", so Woodward, at every international away from Twickenham, has his team's changing-room swept for electronic bugging devices. The opposition on Saturday was Scotland, but as far as the chief coach was concerned, it might as well have been SPECTRE.

There is one notable difference been Woodward and Shankly, however.

At the World Cup in Australia, England were the only team permitted to have their wives and girlfriends with them throughout the tournament. For years, in rugby as in other sports, players shared hotel rooms with another team-mate. Frequently this led to jolly japes, supposedly excellent for team spirit, such as filling each other's shoes with shaving-foam. But Woodward believes his players should be treated like grown-ups, and will repay his trust by behaving responsibly. In Australia, the England players duly used shaving-foam only for bristle-removing purposes, and won the World Cup.

As for sex, when I interviewed Woodward shortly before he left for Australia, I asked him whether he believed, as Shankly did, that it should be discouraged the night before a match? "I don't watch what they do together so I don't know," he said, with a glimmer of a smile. "If there was definitely a performance-related reason to have a discussion then we would, but I've not been shown any evidence one way or the other."

This was surprising, given Woodward's tendency to collate evidence showing whether 76 baked beans at breakfast or merely 74 are more likely to help a scrum-half attain optimum performance levels. But I could only take his word for it - as indeed will a group of coaches from a variety of sports, who in April, at a UK Sport seminar intended to boost Britain's medal tally at this year's Olympic Games in Athens, will listen carefully to what Woodward has to say about the obsessive pursuit of excellence.

It is admirable that Britain's sporting administrators are eager to harness Woodward's knowledge for the collective good, and equally admirable that he is willing to help. By so doing he enhances a tradition, which has gathered pace in recent years, of the person who has done it all in one sport offering advice to the person who has it all to do in another. When the golfer Sam Torrance was working out how, as European Ryder Cup captain, he might wrest back the trophy from the Americans, he consulted the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Nor is this process confined to sport. Woodward himself talked at length with captains of industry when plotting his World Cup campaign, and even with officers in the Royal Marines.

"They taught me," he told me, "that war is not perfect. You do all the training, all the planning, but when you jump out of that boat or that helicopter you don't know what's going to happen. You think you know, you're trained to know, but when it doesn't go that way, those who survive are those who can really think on their feet. Rugby's no different (although) you're not playing for the same stakes as those guys, obviously."

Obviously. Although I couldn't help feeling that what he really meant was "arguably". Anyway, the point is that in war, in business, in sport, there is a winning formula. But we have to find it on our own. What worries me is the growing belief that all we have to do is imbibe from the magic charger.

That's what the restaurateur Nigel Farrell thought when he subjected himself and his struggling Lake District restaurant to the attention of the superchef Gordon Ramsay, for a forthcoming series on Channel 4. It ended in tears, mostly Farrell's. The lesson, surely, is that there is no lesson.

Clive Woodward succeeded because he was a maverick. Are the coaching mavericks of the future to be those who don't do it like him? I hope not.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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