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.
But that was then. The reality is that no European team has won it since 2003. The eighth rugby World Cup kicks off at Twickenham on Friday night, when England play Fiji. Six of the seven previous World Cups have gone south, two each to South Africa, Australia and this year’s favourites with the bookmakers, New Zealand. Woodward has long since been replaced as coach, and looking back, was the Jerusalem he built just a blip? Are the Six Nations teams still looking up to their rivals from Down Under, heading for another beating?
Relaxing in an office in central London, Woodward says, “Good question, but no, I like to think not. The northern countries have taken great strides forward. The stats don’t look good, 6–1 to the southern sides, but it could have been a lot closer if the last two finals had been refereed properly.”
He is referring to the controversial decision not to award England’s Mark Cueto a try against South Africa in the 2007 final – “a big call” – and any number of questionable decisions that went in favour of New Zealand when they defeated France 8–7 four years ago, on their own turf.
“If I had been the coach of France in that World Cup I would still be apoplectic to this day,” says Woodward. “If that final had been refereed properly, France would have won.
“The fact is, England and France were there in those finals. The northern and southern teams are pretty much levelled off now, and New Zealand, Australia and South Africa all know it. They are not crashing favourites to win it this time and it’s going to be a very, very open World Cup, which is why I am so excited about it.”
Highlights from England’s victory in the 2003 World Cup
In New Zealand, Woodward points out, the whole rugby structure is geared to producing winning All Blacks teams. They will not select any player who earns his living in Europe and neither, until recently, would Australia. But that may change in the coming years.
“The wealth is here, in the club game in France and England, and that makes it difficult for their teams and their system. Their entire system is geared around their players all arriving for a World Cup in great shape. If New Zealand lose ten players who come over here to play, their system won’t work. There could be a rapid changing of the guard.”
And home advantage will be massive in this World Cup, just as it was for the All Blacks last time. “It’s not only the support in the stadium, the atmosphere, it’s the familiarity of the surroundings and above all the refereeing,” says Woodward, who spent a year working in football, at Southampton, and had six years as head of elite performance at the British Olympic Association.
“Referees in rugby union make a lot more of a difference than they do in football and other sports. You have the roar of the crowd, a high tackle comes in, the touch judges and the ref are all affected, you see yellow cards, red cards. The home crowd, being at the hosts’ home stadium, does influence the decision-making. It’s just how it is, and it will help England.
“And England have beaten all these teams at Twickenham. Stuart Lancaster [the coach] has done an amazing job since he came in. Someone’s got to beat England at Twickenham if they’re going to win it and I can’t easily see who that’s going to be.”
There’s also the matter of New Zealand’s World Cup record away from their homeland,which is not good. Both their victories were at Eden Park, Auckland, whereas Australia achieved both their wins in Britain.
Though England are in the so-called “group of death” with Australia and Wales, Woodward believes the hosts and the Aussies will make it through. Woodward thinks Wales have the best coach in Warren Gatland, but there may not be enough depth in their squad; he feels the same lack of depth could cost Ireland, who may be beaten in their group by France.
“I really want England to win, of course I do, but if they don’t I hope it goes to another northern hemisphere team. There can be upsets.”
If the home advantage works in their favour, there is one thing England must be wary of. “It’s this,” says Woodward, holding up his mobile phone. “It’s the new enemy. We didn’t have to worry about it in 2003, but I really saw it at London 2012.”
Clive Woodward at the 2003 Rugby World Cup
What he means is: there must be no distractions. “I’ve had the conversation with Stuart Lancaster,” he says. “Don’t let the players be distracted. It could be the media, their family, sponsors, ticket requests, anything. One stupid tweet, one ill-judged video out on social media – if you allow one player to be distracted it can affect the whole team and it can all come tumbling down.”
If everything goes to plan, England have a great chance of winning, Woodward believes. He’s positively bubbling about the next six weeks of action. “You can wear your colours with pride. The games are massive – England v Wales [26 September] is going to be huge. This is the big one, with everybody trying their absolute best. The World Cup will be a spectacle, something special. It’ll be great.”
And maybe, this time, the Pinetree’s boys will be cut down to size.
Building Jerusalem, the story of the 2003 World Cup, is out on DVD now
The Rugby World Cup begins on ITV and Radio 5 Live tonight (Friday 18th September) at 6.45pm