· 8 min read · Features

Englands best talent manager

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The England rugby coachs biggest challenge is to create a highly motivated team from a disparate group of individuals, he tells Larissa Bannister

In a shadow cast by the Twickenham rugby stadium is a small new building with a red rose emblazoned above the door. Inside, apart from a few photographs of Bill Beaumont and Will Carling, theres nothing much to distinguish the offices of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) from any other. But this is the base from which England coach Clive Woodward and the team of RFU employees are trying to create the best rugby team in the world.


Woodward looks more like someone youd be likely to meet at your local rugby club than an international sports coach. Hes softly spoken, charming and erudite, with disarmingly twinkly eyes.


Five years on from being appointed, he still looks as though he cant quite believe his luck. When pressed on the circles he mixes in, he talks of his position as highly privileged.


I get to meet all sorts of great people, successful soccer managers, great athletes and I always make a point of talking to them and asking how they do it, he says. He doesnt seem aware that they probably feel as privileged to meet him.


His self-effacing exterior hides a notoriously strong will. Woodward has had high-profile clashes with the RFU and with the media since becoming England coach. He set up his own business in the early 90s, when the rest of the UK was sunk deep in recession, and then took the first ever full-time England rugby job at a time when the structure of the game had been fundamentally altered.


In 1997, English rugby went professional. For the first time, players and coaches were paid for the work they were doing. The RFU and local clubs alike had to build a business infrastructure to support the game from scratch. It was at this pivotal point in the games history that Woodward was asked to coach the national side.


When I started, I was the first person here, says Woodward. I literally had a chair and a phone and that was it. My business instinct told me not to take this job 85% of new businesses go under in the first three years. But the opportunity was too exciting to turn down.


His first issue was negotiating his salary. Not something that most people like doing but you get the impression that Woodward quite enjoyed the experience. The initial meeting was quite amusing, he says, laughing out loud at the memory. They were totally unaware of what I was earning from running my own business and werent expecting to have to pay anything like the salary I needed with three kids at private school and a mortgage. I couldnt turn around to my family and say, Dads got the England job but were going to have to move house and your schools.


Woodwards negotiation skills have come in very handy since joining the England set-up. Hes had to build a business infrastructure from scratch, and convince the RFU to invest in his plans which involved spending a lot more money than theyd anticipated. I realised from the start that I had to build a whole team behind the team, a whole business, if we were going to become the best team in the world, he explains.


It is what he learned from running his own business, rather than his experience of playing for England, that Woodward says is most useful to him now. Running the England team is just like running a business, he adds. You have to take risks, you have to be prepared to make mistakes. When my business grew, it didnt grow in a straight line you have to expect problems along the way. Its just that this business is more brutal than most others, you either win or lose and theres no grey area. And if you lose, you lose your job.


Despite the constant pressure he faces from the media and from the RFU itself to get results, Woodward is philosophical about temporary problems, like losing the odd game of rugby.


I prefer to concentrate on success, not failure. You see it happening in business all the time, you win a big deal and everyone goes out to celebrate, everyones happy. But when you lose the big deal, thats when you have the dreaded 8am Monday morning meeting.


Well I think it should be the other way around. If we win a match we need to meet to find out why weve won it and how we can improve still more. When you lose, thats the time to sit down together and have a quiet beer in the corner and not panic.


This back-to-front approach is fairly typical of Woodward scratch his surface and you find a maverick streak. When asked to describe his coaching style, hes reluctant to be pigeonholed. I havent got a particular style and I dont like to be put in a box, he says. As a manager you have to create your own style, it has to be natural. But I do believe that most teams follow the personality of their coach or leader.


If thats the case, the England rugby team needs to get as focused on preparation as Woodward is. I get hugely frustrated when I see England teams arriving at world cups unprepared, he says. Look at the football world cup this year. South Korea were the best prepared and they got to the semi-finals. The big teams arrived underprepared including England and they didnt achieve their expectations.


Preparation is the key in business too, he insists. You wouldnt run a business or go into a big meeting with a fingers crossed attitude, he adds. Thats not what Im about. I want England go the rugby world cup next year as favourites.


Woodward has taken some stick in the media for this businesslike approach to a sport that used to pride itself on its just turn up and play mentality. But his way seems to be working.


Five years ago, when Woodward took over, the England rugby team was ranked sixth in the world in a sport where only a handful of nations play the game at all. The team was vilified for being boring to watch and only the most dyed-in-the-wool supporter could claim that England had any chance of consistently beating the teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.


It hasnt all been plain sailing. Although the team has won 28 of the last 32 games and taken a number of scalps including that of South Africa and the mighty Australia, Woodwards England is yet to win a major trophy or a Grand Slam.


But there has been a big change in the perception of England as a team. More and more international rugby stars are admitting albeit grudgingly that England is now a force to be reckoned with. Some are even calling it the best team in the world.


This change has been engineered by Woodward and the team he has put in place at Twickenham. There are four coaches in total, as well as full-time staff working on the players fitness and nutrition, sports psychology and IT. The training regime has been extended so that the youth teams are used to the set-up by the time they reach the senior team. Its all about professionalism, culture and preparation.


There is a great team here now behind the scenes, says Woodward. But and this is a big but we dont employ the players, their clubs do. Woodwards biggest challenge is to create a highly motivated team out of a disparate group of individuals that get together only occasionally. The big question mark hangs over access to the players, he comments. I hardly see the team at all so it is difficult to create a culture that works. We are up against international teams that contract their players to the national side, so I have to be smart and try and get to a system where we can compete with them by working in partnership with the clubs.


It is to Woodwards credit that he has been able to create what is arguably the best team culture in English international sport. I want to make playing for England special, to create an environment that everyone wants to be part of and no one wants to leave, he says, leaning forward over his scrupulously tidy desk. Id be annoyed if our team spirit wasnt better than at any club.


He has introduced a whole host of measures to make all this happen, many of which have their roots in psychology. The team has to change shirts at half-time to concentrate minds on the second half. The changing rooms at Twickenham have been revamped to an impressive standard Woodward insists that if England is to compete with the best, they must have the best facilities. The changing-room walls are adorned with motivational slogans and at the entrance to the players tunnel that leads onto the pitch are plaques commemorating famous England victories.


Woodward has also introduced the concept of teamship rules which every single player even if they are the rugby equivalent of Ronaldo, he quips either signs up to or doesnt play.


The rules are created by the team themselves, and communicated by team representatives who liaise with management. Among other things, the players have banned swearing and mobile phones in public, insist that players who are dropped must congratulate their rivals, forbid dishing dirt on each other in the media and have pledged to ensure that work is fun.


It makes for a great all for one and one for all mentality to the extent that the entire team threatened to strike together last year. This is unusual in sport, where individual stars often expect special treatment the Roy Keane incident at the football world cup this year was a high-profile example of how managing stars can go horribly wrong.


Woodward says he has never had a problem managing his stars and players like Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson now qualify as such. They probably realise that he wouldnt have any of it and he certainly subscribes to the view that no individual is greater than the team. Rugby is a team game, he insists. Of course the game caters for outstanding individuals but Im confident now that we could lose the odd star to injury and have someone else to step in.


Woodward is not afraid to stick his neck out. When he insisted that all England players receive IT training, the hoots of derision from Fleet Street could be heard as far away as Twickenham. But now, big chunks of the teams training programme is done remotely on computers. We have full-time IT staff who create training videos out of match footage, he says. The players can view them on their laptops and give us their feedback via email. This technology is vital, especially as the players have to go back to their clubs almost straightaway after test matches.


Mental training is as important to the team as physical. But psychology can be a bit of a dirty word in sport, and its a word that Woodward dislikes using. Instead, he names his form of mental discipline personal professional preparation. Its about something I call T-cup, he says. That means thinking correctly under pressure. When we get to the world cup there will be lots of teams that have players with natural ability, but its the team that can think best under pressure that will win it.


The psychological training involves mental rehearsal and visualisation of situations that may occur. Then, when you are in a big game situation and you have to make a split second decision it wont be a new experience, it will be something that you have planned for, he explains.


To prepare properly, Woodward says he needs more time with his players. The deal hes negotiating with the rugby clubs involves getting 20 extra training days with players outside of test match weeks. He also wants more monitoring of the athletes medical state and nutrition, so they arent playing games while carrying injuries or playing more games than they should be.


Its not going to be easy to get, and Woodward knows it. Ive been a club coach myself and I understand the pressures they are under, he says. Rugby isnt like soccer, there are a lot of small clubs out there without much cash in the bank so we are trying to put funding into them and in return get a programme for the release of players to give the team a realistic chance of winning the world cup. And winning is the most important thing there is.