Two decades have passed since England became the first northern hemisphere nation to lift the men’s Rugby World Cup. It remains a Where were you? moment and, increasingly, a cautionary tale. Did English rugby properly maximise the legacy of Sir Clive Woodward, Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Phil Vickery and all the other household names who delivered the fabled pot of gold? Or was it simply a high-class blip, the product of a remarkable bunch of players who would have stood out in any era?
At the time it felt slightly surreal. England arrived at that tournament as indisputably the best team in the world. It was, everyone agreed, their World Cup to lose. No one had ever said that about an English men’s side before. Or since. Woodward, whose tenure ended less than a year after his team’s finest hour, makes no attempt to massage the truth. “I always felt we won the World Cup despite our system not because of it.”
Since leaving in 2004 Woodward has been interviewed no fewer than three times to return to a high-powered role at Twickenham, none of which has eventuated for various reasons. The passing years have left him increasingly exasperated with the way the Rugby Football Union operates and, in his view, have highlighted some crucial managerial shortcomings. “I don’t think English rugby is in a great position, I really don’t. Participation numbers are going down, there’s all the stuff around concussion, but you just don’t feel there’s a huge amount of leadership.”
To Woodward’s mind there remain serious unanswered questions, in particular, about the way England approached the 2019 World Cup final. “I was in Tokyo for the last week of the World Cup. I saw quite a bit of Lawrence Dallaglio and said to him: ‘They’re going to lose this. They think they’ve already won it.’ Eddie Jones was organising book launches and inviting his mates in from Australia to watch training. He just got totally distracted. And he knows I think this. They left a game early.
“Why? It’s never come out because no one who really knows what went on was allowed to go in and question Jones and Bill Sweeney about what really happened in that week. You had people put on a committee to say all the right things. That’s why rugby doesn’t deserve, at times, to be successful.” What would he say to the current England team? “It’s not your shirt, you’re just the custodians of it. Make the most of it and don’t get distracted. Those guys who lost in Yokohama, unless they win the next one, will always have that in the back of their minds.”
Woodward, though, was already clutching his head and rolling his eyes long before Jones walked through Twickenham’s front door. England’s failure to make it out of their pool at the 2015 Rugby World Cup on their own turf was another massive own goal and Woodward still feels that trying to shoehorn the rugby league signing Sam Burgess into the Red Rose midfield was a major miscalculation. “In 2015 they just got Burgess totally wrong. He wasn’t an England centre, he wasn’t good enough. I think they fudged it and it cost Stuart Lancaster everything. You need guys who are really quick and Burgess wasn’t quick. You can’t play in the centre unless you’ve got real pace about you. Especially if you’re coming to a game you’ve not played all your life.”
In his own case, it was a row over how best to kick on from the 2003 triumph that precipitated his abrupt departure from office. “It was a power thing in the end. I wanted to be in control of the players because they were playing too many games and getting bashed up. Jonny had been beasted, no one had thought about his health. I said: ‘I want to be able to have an adult conversation with the clubs. If I say he’s not playing on Saturday he’s not playing on Saturday.’ I think it would have worked, but the RFU said they wouldn’t pay more money to the clubs. Now they’ve almost moved to that model. England players hardly play for their clubs during the Six Nations.
“I just felt people were folding their arms. Someone said to me – and I believe it was minuted – that senior people were saying: ‘It’s OK, it’s all bluff, he won’t leave, he loves the job too much.’ I’d been a big fan of Francis Baron [the former RFU chief executive], but he definitely changed after the World Cup. I think a lot of jealousy – not from Baron, I must stress – came through. I’ve subsequently been told there was massive resentment around me getting a knighthood. It was huge. You don’t apply to get a knighthood, it just arrives through the post. But that did me no good at all. They were clearly saying: ‘If you thought he was tough before, he’s going to be out of control now.’”
Then there was the time when, with Nick Mallett being tipped to take the England head coaching job that eventually went to Stuart Lancaster, Woodward decided to throw his hat into the ring. “The reason I wanted to do it is that I didn’t want Nick Mallett to get the job. I didn’t want a South African to be coaching England. I didn’t think they’d even think about Stuart Lancaster because he hadn’t coached anybody of note. Then I got a call from Nick Mallett. He said: ‘You know it’s a total stitch-up. You and I are being used as stalking horses.’ I just laughed.”
He also came close to returning as the RFU’s director of rugby before backroom political manoeuvres saw Rob Andrew appointed ahead of him in 2011. It was a position for which Woodward felt he would have been ideally suited. “I didn’t want to coach England, I wanted to be the director of rugby and to support the coach, which I think I’d have been good at doing. Not doing a Rassie Erasmus but sitting in a suit and tie in the committee box and making sure the head coach has everything he wanted.”
It is a recurring English oversight, he believes, whether it be in football, rugby or cricket. Selecting coaches is a particular skill. “We pick people to be chief executives, their feathers all plump up and it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Woodward argues that Jones’s sacking as head coach last December was an accident waiting to happen. “I blame Bill Sweeney and Ian Ritchie. I’d say to them: ‘Why did you not appoint someone below you to make that appointment and report to you with their recommendations?’ They’ll say: ‘We spoke to loads of people and all the players.’ That’s ridiculous because they don’t know either. Just because you’ve played the game doesn’t mean you’re qualified to pick a coach or to understand what the job is really is.
“The real problem is that the person making the decision has not got the skill set to appoint that coach. The whole appointment system is totally flawed. It’s still an old boys’ club.” If asked, would he still be interested in a role now? “If someone came to me, I’d look at it like anyone else. I’d never say never to anything. But I think that boat has well and truly sailed.”
Similarly dated structures, he argues, are also holding back the global game. “Europe should be way ahead of where it is at the moment. To me the Six Nations are culpable for not inviting other people to the table and having promotion and relegation. We’re not trying to ditch Italy. It’s the complete opposite. We’re trying to say if there’s a side from Georgia or Romania or Spain that is good enough, they should be given the opportunity. That’s when you get more money coming into the game. Why is rugby not played at a high level in, say, Germany? Because there’s no incentive to get to the top table. If rugby wanted to make a change, they’d have put Gus Pichot in charge when he ran for the chairmanship of World Rugby. Instead the old school just backed each other. The game is retreating at the moment, it really is, with the exception of France. It’s so sad.”
Which is why he believes France are the side to watch, both in the short term and for the foreseeable future. “The scary team is France. They’re like England in 2003. Since 2019 they’ve moved well ahead of England.” And having a Frenchman in charge, argues Woodward, makes them even more formidable. “No national head coach has ever won a World Cup when not in charge of their own country. Fabien Galthié is a clever guy with a business background. It was an inspired decision.”
It is another good reason, in his view, to fancy Les Bleus in the 2023 World Cup. “To be at home is a huge, huge advantage. If 2003 had been at home, I think we’d have won by 30–40 points. We’d have been unbeatable. Playing away from home levels things out a little bit, especially with the match officials.”
Before he heads off there is one last Woody-ism. Even now, after everything he has done, he could never be accused of a lack of enthusiasm. “If I was in Galthié’s shoes, I’d be getting seriously excited. He’s got a real chance of doing something people will never, ever forget.” Make the most of this priceless opportunity, in other words. Because, as every English supporter will testify, it might be another 20 years before it happens again.
2003 and all that
The 2003 Rugby World Cup final is all sepia-tinged legend now – Lote Tuqiri’s early score, Jason Robinson’s 38th-minute try, the never-say-die resilience of Eddie Jones’s Wallabies – but after 80 minutes it was still only 14–14. For Woodward and everyone else on England’s bench, it was increasingly uncomfortable viewing. “I’ve watched it a couple of times and we didn’t play that well. The referee [André Watson] was a bit weird, it wasn’t our best game by a mile. But in many ways, it was. The pressure to win that game was colossal. No one had ever done it before. You’re playing away from home in Australia.”
As extra time wore on, though, it still required someone to pull the trigger. And when the ball finally came back to Wilkinson – courtesy of a spot-on pass from Matt Dawson – everything unfolded in slow motion. Was that really Jonny using his right foot rather than his famous left? From our vantage point in the press box, the ball almost seemed to hang in the air, with the faces around the stadium frozen as if captured by a modern-day HM Bateman. And then through the posts it floated, sparking delirium far beyond a rain-dampened Sydney. As Woodward says now: “Everybody remembers that game, even if they don’t even follow rugby or sport. I’ve spoken to soldiers who were on the tops of mountains in conflict areas … so many people were watching. Time seemed to stop.”
No wonder the all-English management – Woodward, Andy Robinson, Phil Larder, Dave Reddin, Dave Alred et al – still meet for celebratory annual reunions even now. But how they would have felt had Wilkinson missed and England lost? Woodward believes it would have soured him for the rest of his days. “I don’t think I’d have turned out a very nice person. I really don’t. I think there would have been a bitterness I would have massively struggled to get rid of. To have arrived at the World Cup as favourites, having not lost to a southern hemisphere team for a long time … I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
It is an occupational hazard for all international coaches. “We all love sport, but it can be horrible at times. I said to Eddie: “Do you ever think about that game?’ He said: ‘Every day.’ I fully understand that. I don’t think about winning the World Cup every day. You kind of move on. But in our house we have this great saying: ‘Well done, Jonny Wilkinson!’ When we’re in a lovely restaurant, having a lovely meal and a glass of champagne someone will say: ‘Well done, Jonny Wilkinson!’ When we’re skiing with the kids in Verbier, my daughter Jess will go: ‘Well done, Jonny Wilkinson!’ If we’d not won the damn thing, it would have been almost impossible to get over. You’d have gone to your grave regretting that moment.”
OK, but could they have won even with Mickey Mouse in charge? With Johnson as the team’s strong persuader and Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back, Jason Leonard and Will Greenwood all offering wise, experienced counsel? Arguably, but Woodward’s view is that the collective is always stronger than the individual. “We had a great team. No doubt about it. But I remember Arsène Wenger being asked that question. I loved his answer. ‘What’s more important, the team or the coach? You need both. I can be the best coach in the world but unless I’ve got a great team I’m not going to win. Equally they could be the best players in the world but without a great coach you’re not going to win.’ I’ve never forgotten him saying that.”
Around the World in 80 Minutes: In Search of Rugby Greatness by Robert Kitson is published by Bloomsbury on 17 August, price £18 (hardback)