This extract looks at how Clive Woodward began building England’s first ever professional structure at Test level. He was unveiled as England head coach on 16 September, 1997, and the following is set in days afterwards. His approach was like nothing English rugby had ever seen before.
Woodward sat in his office and surveyed a folder on his desk that listed profiles of each of the players that he wanted to include in his first proper squad session. Of the seventy that he had addressed at Bisham Abbey after his appointment, he had whittled them down to thirty-five. Of those, twenty-two would make his first Test match squad.
Examining the current access he had to players, he roughly calculated that he would have only fifty sessions in any one season. The Test players could play anything up to fifty matches a year for club and country. Adding vital rest and recovery periods to this equation meant that there were very few opportunities for him to try to gain more time with the players. That is where one of the fundamental weaknesses of the set-up in England reared its head. With the advent of professionalism in 1995 the clubs in England retained their autonomy. In the two decades that have passed since then, only two or three have ever ended a season operating in profit. In the absence of self-sufficiency, the majority rely on wealthy benefactors and philanthropic owners to survive. Some have failed to stay afloat, most noticeably London Scottish, who went into administration during the 1998–99 season and were subsequently demoted nine leagues by the RFU. It is one of rugby’s great stories that the club has progressed back through the leagues year by year and, at the time of writing, lie in the Championship, one tier below the Aviva Premiership. But while the autonomy of the clubs lifts a huge financial burden from the RFU – which has largely been shouldered by every other major union in the world, with the exception of France and Argentina – the priorities of the club owners and sponsors is not to ensure the success of the national team by prioritising player rest periods and tailoring their training and fitness programmes to the international windows, but the success and survival in the league and cup competitions that they are involved with. Just as Woodward had recognised that a lack of appropriate player preparation time with England and the Lions had hamstrung their chances to achieve anything approaching consistent success (never mind establishing greatness), so he could see – even more sharply – the debilitating flaws in the structure of the England game that confronted him as a coach.
The first full training day with the squad was two weeks after that initial meeting at Bisham Abbey. In that time he had set about drawing up a long-term plan for the team’s ambitions. He had already presented a similar document to the RFU when applying for the job – now he began to add meat to the bones. This document was never really completed – because it was constantly worked on, tweaked, revised and expanded. The plan, like Woodward, never stood still – and just as Jim Greenwood’s jotters of notes had grown and evolved over time, so too did Woodward’s working plan for the England team.
‘I was the first professional national coach so in that sense I had a blank sheet of paper,’ said Woodward, ‘which was good because I was starting from scratch. But the flip side was that experience tells me that the first two or three years of any new venture are the toughest, and if you’re smart you come in after three years when some other idiot has taken all the initial crap. However, it was a fantastic opportunity for me and I jumped in with both feet. I had various ideas but the bottom line was that I had to win Test matches otherwise I wouldn’t survive.’
What he had seen at the Australian Institute of Sport had lodged itself firmly in his mind. He had marvelled at the pooling of specialist knowledge that he had first witnessed at Loughborough and seen taken to a new level at the AIS. So he set about identifying specialists in scrummaging, line-outs, defence and fitness.
‘One of the major things that he did was to put a fantastic coaching group together,’ said Richard Hill. ‘He tried to look for the very best experts in their fields – the guys who were the best at coaching scrummaging, line-outs, defence and so on – guys who could lead the best players and make them better. That, of course, had its own challenges because each coach wanted to have some quality time with the players to work on their core skills; if you want to be the best coach, if you want to be a world leader in your specific coaching area, you want to have a good amount of time with the players – you don’t want to get to a World Cup and say, “My area was a let-down.” So we had all these coaches who would want maybe thirty minutes a day with us, but you can’t train that much as a rugby player. Three-hour sessions just do not happen; even two-hour sessions were a stretch. Clive was very adept at managing that workload so that we got the benefit of the specialist coaching but without overworking our bodies.’
‘We hadn’t had backs, forwards, defence, attack, scrummage and kicking coaches before,’ said Jason Leonard, the prop forward, ‘let alone throwing-in coaches, tactical analysts and all the other people who suddenly became associated with the team. I realise now that it was the right thing to do but, at the time, we were a bit alarmed at how quickly everything was changing and what all these new and varied coaches were going to do. Some of the players had visions of the coaches all wanting to have their input, and us having to train ten hours a day to allow them all to contribute. Luckily the whole thing was managed by Clive, and he made sure that the coaches all had their input and that we got the most out of them.’
‘He was obsessed with detail and changing things that you would never have even thought of before,’ said Hill. ‘I remember one of the first things he did was to bring in a TV make-over company to revamp the changing rooms at Twickenham. We were all asked what sort of things we would like, from the paint colour to whether we wanted cubicles. We were locked out of the place in the build-up to a Test match and then shown in before the game and we were all bowled over with how much it had changed. We went in and it was all bright and spacious, with huge pictures on the walls and plaques with our names on them above individual cubicles. It was completely different to the old barren concrete blocks that had been in there before and it certainly made you feel like you were a part of an elite environment.’
‘And he made the away changing rooms worse!’ recalled Dawson. ‘He made them as dull and cold as possible. Then you’d walk into the tunnel and line up next to the opposition before running out and there would be all these plaques to great England victories that went right back to the first internationals dotted all along the walls, and on the doors to the pitch in giant writing were the words: THIS IS FORTRESS TWICKENHAM. At the time as a player I didn’t really appreciate all the little things that Clive did but you look back now and think, he was a clever so-and-so…’
Woodward had always been irritated by the fawning attitudes that northern hemisphere players, teams and unions had towards their counterparts in the southern hemisphere. He had witnessed at first hand the skills and attacking élan of the Australian players when he had played at Manly, but he had also realised that they were human and not necessarily any better than the players he had played with at home. It was just their environment – from the weather conditions that allowed for a more free-flowing game, to a well-honed competitive atmosphere – that allowed the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans to develop a winning attitude and a positivity to their rugby that could cow a less ambitious side and make the crucial difference between winning and losing. Over more than a century, the three southern hemisphere giants had enjoyed a dominance not just over the individual home nations but also over the Lions and the Barbarians. Their superiority extended from training and playing styles, to structural organisation of competitions, to importing players. As a result the northern hemisphere sides had come to almost automatically bow their heads to their southern rivals. Woodward had had enough.
As Leonard recalled, ‘I remember that when the New Zealand team put together a booklet of their training drills, coaches in England got hold of it and we all copied it slavishly for years. Clive’s theory was that we should find a way that worked best for England and not copy what other rugby nations were doing. We should establish the England way of doing things, and let other countries copy that.’
Woodward wanted to develop the England Way. He wanted his team to become the trend-setters, he wanted his team to become the team with the revolutionary practices that other teams would want to emulate. Because he knew that if they didn’t do that they would never become the best team in the world.
‘Clive came in and wanted to change how we were playing, to move away from the stereotypical English game dominated by the forwards,’ said Martin Johnson. ‘In fairness, we had already started that under Jack and he just moved us further down the track. He insisted, in those first games, that we play without a game plan as such – in fact, the term “game plan” was banned from being mentioned – and that we were to play off the cuff whenever we could. At first it was all a bit chaotic but in retrospect I can appreciate what he was trying to do – he was wanting us to free our minds and to think differently. It was a bit much for me at times – rugby is a simple game when you really break it down and if you want to be successful the key is to execute your basic skills as well as possible, but I can’t deny that his approach was also really refreshing.’
Woodward had so many things that he wanted to implement, so many ideas that he wanted to convey, so many changes he wanted to make. But the lessons from the Sydney Xerox office had, fortuitously, left an indelible mark. He knew that many of the players he had met in the Elizabethan Room doubted his credentials, that they were exhausted by Test rugby and that they were well aware of the challenges awaiting them that autumn. If he was going to achieve anything, he needed to win their trust. It was Henley, London Irish and Bath all over again. Do not flood the senses, do not slip straight into overdrive – win their trust, give them time to understand your vision, let them believe in you and they will follow you anywhere.
Dave Reddin was working on a part-time basis as a fitness adviser to the England team. Woodward knew that to play Total Rugby at the elite level of the game would require the team to have incredible fitness levels. But if they could push beyond that to become the fittest and most powerful team in the world then they would be taking a major stride towards his goal to make them a dominant global force. If they could play at a speed that no other team could live with, if they could physically intimidate their opposition and if they could maintain that dominance for the full eighty minutes and beyond, then he knew that, save for human error, they would be in a position to win just about any encounter they entered into – and win well. So one of Woodward’s first moves was to install Reddin full-time. He stressed to the players that their time with England was not to build their strength and fitness – they didn’t have enough training time available to permit that. Instead Reddin would work with every player to construct a training programme – which would fit with their club commitments – that would allow them to get in the peak physical condition required of them. If they failed to adhere to the plan, they would not be considered for selection.
Over the course of the next few months he added Phil Larder as defence coach, began to utilise Dave Alred as kicking coach in a more regular fashion than had been the case under the previous regime, brought in Phil Keith-Roach as scrummaging adviser and Tony Biscombe as video analyst.
As he had first done at Henley, he set about empowering the players as much as possible by assigning them individual responsibilities for key areas of the game, from line-outs to defence. A number of them were already established stars of the world game for both England and the Lions – indeed the success of the 1997 Lions had propelled a large core of the team into the stratosphere.
As well as putting together his first squad of players and beginning to build up his back-room staff, Woodward also had a major call to make over who he was going to name as captain. Martin Johnson seemed the obvious choice after successfully captaining the Lions in South Africa and the media speculation was heavily in his favour. The other option that Woodward was considering was Lawrence Dallaglio, the young captain of Wasps, who had led his team to the league title during his first season at the helm before becoming an iconic figure on the Lions tour.
‘I was a lot more talkative than Martin,’ said Dallaglio in It’s in the Blood. ‘That was more Clive’s style. In the early years, he was full of ideas and I think he liked to feel he could discuss them with his captain… What I particularly liked was Clive’s vision. He didn’t want England to be the best team in just Europe, he wanted them to be the best in the world. That meant beating the southern hemisphere countries and doing so regularly. It meant winning the World Cup, and even though I was young and didn’t know much, I could see we were never going to do that without a radical change of attitude. And Clive definitely wanted to be the man to bring about this change.’
Dallaglio was twenty-five years old and, despite his profile soaring after the Lions tour, he was beginning only his third season as an England player. But he was passionate and forthright and seemed open to new ideas, while Johnson was more rugged and sceptical in his approach to the game. Both men had clear leadership assets and, while public opinion was that the job was surely Johnson’s, it may well have been a case of Woodward making a statement of intent by deciding to go against the grain and select Dallaglio.
The Lions tour hung over the England squad in more ways than simply the issue of who should be the captain. Many of the Lions in the England squad were struggling for form and fitness at the start of the 1997–98 season, largely owing to exhaustion and the inevitable comedown from playing a part in such a momentous tour. Woodward knew that one of the very first things he had to do was to reinvigorate their enthusiasm for the England environment. He had stated in that first meeting at Bisham Abbey that he wanted the players to realise that this was a new chapter for English rugby – and so he continued with that theme.
When the players were settled into their seats in the Elizabethan Room for their second meeting, Woodward welcomed them and put up a slide on an overhead projector. Then he turned to a large, ruddy-faced man and introduced him as Humphrey Walters. He was a management consultant recommended to Woodward by Uttley and considered one of the best in the business at advising on leadership, team-building and performing under pressure. He had recently returned from the 1997 BT Global Challenge – a ten-month yacht race going the ‘wrong way’ around the world: sailing against the trade winds and tides, covering 33,000 miles and setting new standards in endurance. After an experience like that, he certainly understood the challenges that groups could experience under intense physical and mental duress. ‘Clive wanted someone who the players and management could relate to, who had done something, knew how things worked in action and was not a bullshit merchant,’ said Walters. ‘The round-the-world race was for ordinary people, but they became extraordinary people. It was this process that interested me and Clive and I wanted to bring its lessons to the England management, making them a unit who live and breathe excellence. And right from the start he wanted the team and the management to kick aside their usual mentality of what a rugby environment was and think differently.’
The slide that was displayed read:
Finished files are the result
of many years of scientific
study combined with the
experience of many years
‘Can I ask you all to please stand up for a moment,’ said Walters, addressing the room.
There was a scraping of chairs and every man rose to his feet.
‘Now,’ continued Walters. ‘Please sit down if you only saw one f in this sentence.’
No one moved.
‘OK. Please sit if you only saw two fs.’
Again, not a muscle twitched.
‘Please sit down if you only saw three fs.’
There was a scuffle and general exhalation as each man returned to his seat.
Walters smiled. ‘How interesting. You all fall in with what 98 per cent of the population see when presented with this sentence. Three fs.’
There were some quizzical glances shared among the players. What was all this kids’ stuff?
‘And that shows that 98 per cent of the population and 100 per cent of you do not pay enough attention to detail. There are, in fact, six fs in that sentence. But when your eyes scanned over the words, your brain did not register the fs in the three ofs. I have been brought in to help focus our attention on details. They may seem of little importance, but small details can make a huge difference to your performance as a player both on and off the field.’
‘What is also of huge importance,’ said Woodward, ‘is that we change our way of thinking. We cannot say that something is right just because it is being done the way it has always been done. We have to look at every aspect of our environment, our training and our preparation and consider if we are doing it in the best way, if we are missing any fine details. Because if we find them, then we are going to have an edge on our competitors; they are still going to see three fs, but we might just see six, and that could make all the difference between winning and losing, from being the fifth best team in the world to being the undisputed No.1.’
Richard Hill, who Woodward would later say was the first name on any team-sheet he picked, said, ‘As sportspeople we think we can offer a lot to a business in terms of profile and leadership and so on, but Clive came in with a business approach to sport and it made a huge, huge impact. He brought in management consultants and over the years we did all sorts of different tests with these guys, from mental examinations to spatial awareness to practical exercises. It was all team-building and expanding our horizons beyond the basic blinkered view of your normal rugby environment.’
Although many of the ideas that Woodward would come up with over the years wouldn’t necessarily work out as planned, his enthusiasm and his relentless drive to pursue any lead that might give them the edge made the players open to trying out each new idea as it came along. He was single-handedly instilling a growth mindset into the playing group and in so doing allowed their rugby horizons to expand further than they had ever done before. He called it ‘six f thinking’. Woodward worked closely with Walters on developing the elite atmosphere and environment for the England team for two key reasons. First, it provided an environment of no excuses: if the players travelled first-class, stayed in five-star hotels and had the best training equipment and specialist coaches, physios and doctors around, they could never come off the pitch and blame anything other than their own efforts for a substandard performance. Second, it created a ‘pull strategy’ that motivated the players to do all they could to gain access to and then remain within the England environment. It was an exclusive club and if they wanted to be part of it, they would have to work harder than they had ever worked before to stay there. And they had to know that if their standards slipped, no matter who they were, they would be out. It was a powerful combination and again encouraged a growth mindset among the players: they wanted to improve themselves and there is no more effective learning stimulus.
‘The great thing with Clive’s England set-up,’ said Austin Healey, ‘was that you could phone the guys up in the week and they’d be there at your house in six hours. They’d do video analysis with you, or take you out on the pitch and train you, or advise you on any and every little detail of your game.’
When the meeting was adjourned, the players were told to pick up a copy of a book on their way out of the Elizabethan Room. It was called Building the Happiness-Centred Business by Dr Paddi Lund. Lund was an Australian dentist who had revolutionised his business practices and had devoted much of his energies towards identifying and improving what he called ‘critical non-essentials’. The theory has subsequently been adopted by sports teams and businesses all around the world, but it was relatively unheard of in 1997 and captured Woodward’s imagination as powerfully as the teachings of Humphrey Walters.
While attending a three-day conference featuring the American marketing guru Jay Abraham in London in 1996, Ann Heaver had discovered Building the Happiness-Centred Business. She read it from cover to cover throughout the conference – much to Woodward’s annoyance at the time. But when she handed him the book and insisted that he read it, he experienced an epiphany almost as powerful and influential to his career as Jim Greenwood’s Total Rugby. Lund had been depressed at work and on the verge of suicide; pulling himself back from the brink he analysed his life and decided to make some drastic changes at work so that he, his staff and his clients would actually be happy in that environment. It had stunning effects. His practice became something of a private members’ club; sophisticated, relaxed and welcoming. His satisfaction at work soared – as did his profitability. Woodward was captivated by the concept. He knew the power of positive thinking and of a happy environment in sport – but it had never been articulated quite as clearly as Lund had done in his book.
‘I remember hearing the odd comment from the players that I was mad giving them the book,’ said Woodward. ‘But I don’t think I was mad. The message was very simple – if a dentist could turn his entire business upside down, doing the same with rugby is not going to be very difficult. I said to them, “We are so conservative, so stuck in our ways, we’ve got to open our minds up.” And I just used Paddi as an example that this can be done – you can change the way you look at things and how you run your organisation. And it can’t all come from your leader or your coach, the players have to buy into the idea in order for it to happen and for it to work. And the more you can get your team totally thinking about it, the more good ideas will come through from everybody. But you’ve got to get your whole team in on it and not just sitting there with their arms folded. You can’t just have the coach coming out with idea after idea after idea, you need to get some interactive engagement. Yes, the coach leads it, but we called it “Paddi thinking” and we got the players to question everything. The big question was always why – why are we doing this, why do we do it this way? Why do we stay here, why do we train this way? Because now we are professional there is no excuse – we have to question everything we’re doing and to get better than everyone else. People talk about changing for the sake of changing and that’s important not to do, but you’ve got to question everything and work out what needs changing and what doesn’t. And that’s why I used Paddi as an example: if a flipping dentist can do it – and there can‘t be that many ways to run a dental practice – then why can’t we as a rugby team do the same thing?
‘You don’t just bring it all in at once – it’s a gradual thing. I took one or two of the senior guys aside for a private chat and I explained what I planning. I wasn’t looking for approval, but I wanted to help them to understand what the rationale behind my thinking was.
‘It was a hugely exciting time because you have one chance and you’ve just got to go for it. And I wasn’t scared of it; I think that’s where running my own small business really helped. I started that from a garage and then I employed a couple of people and we took risks and we lost money and we made money, we mortgaged the house, and we did all sorts of stuff – and by that stage you’re used to just getting on and doing things. I wasn’t a big corporate animal, I was small businessman – which is what a rugby team is, you’re running a small business, you have 30-odd people in a room, it’s not a huge operation. That’s how I used to think about it with the players: “It doesn’t really matter what’s happening out there,” I’d say, “it’s just here in this room that matters – it’s down to us whether you like it or not.” As an England coach you’re at the sharp end, you can’t affect player development; we’re here now, we’re the end result – and we have a job to do. And that’s the message you’ve really got to get across: it’s now or never. You either look back in twenty years’ time and say, “That was great,” or you have what I have with my playing career and you look back and say, ‘I wish we had done it better.’ That’s one thing that I can get across to people, whether they are Olympic athletes, rugby players, footballers, golfers or whatever – you only have one shot and you have to give it everything you can. And you are a long time retired. But it isn’t easy. You can sit in that room and think you’re quite good, but there are rooms of players in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France and they all think they’re pretty good too, and those are the guys that you have to beat. But I think I did get that message across to them and they trusted me. And I wasn’t afraid to try things. I got this tag of the “mad professor” which I don’t like because there was nothing mad about the things we tried, they were all carefully thought out and had a specific purpose; I prefer the term “maverick”, which has also been used, because what we were doing was different and no one else was trying it – but it wasn’t madness. All I wanted to do was to ensure that we weren’t going to die wondering. And some of the more conservative players maybe thought some stuff was a bit daft, but I still don’t think any of it was. It was maybe something that no one else had done before but it wasn’t daft, and I think that that’s what a lot of the players actually liked – they liked being challenged.’
While touring Australia in the summer of 1996 with the Under-21s, Woodward went to meet Lund at his practice in Brisbane. It was a meeting that inspired him as much as reading the book and Lund’s philosophy would form as important a cornerstone to his coaching mantra as those of Kirton, Greenwood and White.
In what has become a widely recognised practice in the sporting world in recent years, Lund opened Woodward’s eyes to the importance of critical non-essentials (CNEs). In the context of the England team this will be discussed in more detail later, but for Lund it meant offering his clients a range of luxury teas and coffees upon arrival, insisting on having his staff and customers talk politely to one another at all times and ensuring that his staff knew his clients’ names and faces so well that a client would never have to give their name upon arrival at the practice. By adding CNEs into sport, a coach, manager or player is creating an environment in which tiny marginal gains can be achieved that ultimately improve overall performance, giving them a crucial edge on their competitors.
‘You don’t win a Test match because you’ve got better clothing than the All Blacks,’ said Woodward on critical non-essentials some years later. ‘You don’t win a Test match because you turn up on a bus with a big red rose on the side of it. But when you add up all the hundreds and hundreds of tiny details that we added, it gives you an edge and it does make a difference. And in Test match rugby, it’s those edges that can be the difference between winning and losing.’
Woodward knew that if the England players spent more time fine-tuning their game and considering hundreds of tiny assets that could improve their fitness, diet, physique and preparation – improving things that no other team had even considered improving – then they would give themselves a potentially defining advantage over their competitors. As he would often say to the players, ‘It is impossible to improve one thing by 100 per cent. But you can improve 100 things by 1 per cent and give yourself a crucial edge.’
Again, Woodward’s focus on incremental improvements in myriad tiny details aptly demonstrates the power of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory in practice. By encouraging his players to take control of their performances and creating a structure that would not only support them but which would allow them to flourish, he provided a framework with achievable targets that could significantly improve their fitness, conditioning, diet, mental well-being, and their physical and mental preparation for Test match rugby – which would ultimately set them in better stead for winning on the Test stage than ever before. But it would be a long road.