Back when Clive Woodward played for England in the early 1980s, rugby union was very much an amateur game, and it was dominated by the teams from “down south”.
“I generally thought that we could never beat New Zealand, Australia and South Africa; we weren’t supposed to beat them,” says Woodward, who ran an IT leasing business before coaching became a viable career option, one that would later enable him to prefix his name with “Sir”.
“In coaching sessions when I was a player we were told this is what New Zealand do, this is what South Africa do. You were almost just copying them, and it really annoyed me, from a playing point of view, a business point of view. We were the most amateur country in world rugby, and the great underachievers in the sport.”
The northern softies from the British Isles, many of them drawn from public schools, never stood a chance against the granite-jawed giants who wore the silver fern, the wallaby or the springbok on their jersey. The fact that the man named New Zealand’s player of the century in 1999, Colin Meads, was nicknamed Pinetree shows what England and the rest were up against. Throughout history, the All Blacks have won more than 400 of the 500 or so test matches they’ve played.
When rugby turned professional in 1995, says Woodward, “the gloves were off ”. But the southern teams still landed all the punches at the 1995 World Cup, won by South Africa, and in 1999, when Australia lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.
Looking back at England’s defeat by South Africa in the quarter-finals in Paris in 1999, Martin Johnson, then the team’s captain, echoed Woodward’s view. “That thing about the southern hemisphere being better than us really rankled,” he said. “You always felt a little bit second best. You want to be the best, not being beaten by these guys and being looked down on all the time.”
So Woodward decided to do something about it. He thought he would be sacked after 1999, but he was kept on and became ever more determined to build a winning team.
“When I became England coach [in 1997] I made it absolutely clear that I wasn’t going to copy what the southern hemisphere did – ever. We have the players, we have the expertise. I wanted England to be not just the most professional team in rugby, but the most professional team in world sport. I had a vision of people in the NFL, basketball and soccer asking ‘What’s the England rugby team doing?’
“I think it worked. People were asking. When we arrived in Australia for the 2003 World Cup we were favourites. It was an amazing team with an amazing captain.”
Woodward led the way as Johnson, and a great team of players, alongside another great team of specialist coaches and advisers, took England to their greatest triumph. The story of that unforgettable victory is told in a new documentary film, Building Jerusalem (above), which features interviews with Woodward, Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson, the man whose drop kick sank Australia in the final.