Sir Clive, the democratic autocrat who's a bundle of contradictions

Sir Clive Woodward bemused and ba ffled rugby union, writes Chris Hewett, yet when it came down to it he delivered. His new sport may be wise to hold its breath

Saturday 24 December 2005 01:00

As Sam Goldwyn famously pointed out, "a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." Whatever assurances George Burley received from the club chairman, Rupert Lowe, before agreeing to join Southampton as head coach - and there must have been a good deal of sweet-talking before the deal was closed - he would be advised to have them carved into marble with a sculptor's chisel. Sir Clive Woodward, his partner at the top end of the operation at St Mary's, is a brilliant operator in many ways, but he is not renowned for leaving important business wholly in the hands of others.

During his seven-year tour of duty with the England rugby team, there was often confusion over his precise role. Sometimes, he described himself as "manager", and urged others to do likewise; sometimes, he insisted on being credited as "coach". Only one thing was certain: Woodward was in charge. Top dog, main man, numero uno. He surrounded himself with specialists - forwards coaches, backs coaches, kicking coaches, throwing coaches, fitness co-ordinators, visual awareness experts, chefs - but had no time for the notion that ultimate responsibility could be distributed among the many. He was an autocrat in democrat's clothing - an informal autocrat to be sure, but an autocrat all the same.

Some of the world's outstanding rugby technicians discovered this. John Mitchell, who went on to coach the All Blacks and may one day perform the same role with the Wallabies, took the bold step of going off-message during his early days as Woodward's second-in-command, and found himself off-limits to the media for the best part of two years. Brian Ashton, the nearest thing to a coaching revolutionary to emerge in these islands since the late Carwyn James, was England's attacking strategist for the Six Nations game in France on 2 March 2002. By the time the team played Wales three weeks later, he was nowhere to be seen.

Woodward's contradictions are legion. Charming as the day is long, he drives the hardest of bargains in the boardroom; a proud maverick with a penchant for left-field theories - he developed his ideas on high-pressure performance after discussing the subject with an Israeli handwriting analyst who was flying him over the Golan Heights in a two-seater aeroplane at the time - he admits to being obsessed by method. So what? As he himself would argue, there cannot be much wrong with a managerial approach that won England their first major world title in almost 40 years.

But it is also true to say that the Webb Ellis Trophy was won on Woodward's own terms, not on those of a group of like-minded people. Of course, it was the players who performed the deed itself, and there was some resentment in certain corners of the victorious squad that the manager-cum-coach received so much of the celebratory attention. Yet without Woodward's professionalisation of the national set-up - without his ability to persuade an antediluvian Rugby Football Union to get modern and spend some serious money on behalf of the cause - Sydney 2003 would not have happened the way it did.

In effect, Woodward said this: "You want success and I'll secure it, but it will cost you." At some stage - and the moment may not be long in coming - he will say something similar to Lowe and the Southampton board. If they give him what he feels he needs, he will work 24-hour days on their behalf. If they reject him, he will walk away.

Quite where Burley, an ambitious man in his own right, finally fits into the Woodward equation is anybody's guess. As the aforementioned Mr Goldwyn also said: "I was always an independent, even when I had partners."

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