Sacre bleu! Could Sir Clive Woodward, knight of the realm, England’s only World Cup winning coach, be about to do a nifty Channel-hop and switch allegiance to his old enemy, the French? Inconceivable as that might once have seemed, it is no flight of fancy, with Woodward catching the Eurostar to Paris last week after being invited to make a presentation to the bigwigs at the French Rugby Federation (FFR).
The selection committee charged with finding a replacement for the beleaguered France coach, Philippe Saint-Andre, after the 2015 World Cup included former French internationals Serge Blanco, Jean-Claude Skrela, Jo Maso, Jean-Pierre Lux, former French forwards coach Didier Retiere, and FFR president Pierre Camou.
The word filtering through to the French media from that inner sanctum of Gallic rugby is that Woodward’s presentation skills remain as finally-honed as ever, leaving them deeply impressed by the breadth of his vision for Les Bleus and the passion he expressed for the role.
Passion has always been a Woodward characteristic, and he has never been scared to express it, whether jumping up and down in the stands at Twickenham to celebrate England’s tries, or berating RFU officials publicly for their lack of support in his resignation speech in 2004. Passion is something that the French – especially the likes of magical runners like Blanco and Maso – identify with, because it is deeply embedded in their psyche.
What will also have impressed them is Woodward’s management skills, expressed in a coherent structure in which he sits as a high performance director with specialist coaches, conditioning experts, analysts, medical staff, communications gurus, nutritionists and chefs, answerable to him.
The driving force behind Woodward’s wooing of the French is his deep frustration and sense of hurt at being spurned by the RFU. Much of the internecine committee warfare that fractured the RFU in and around the 2011 World Cup centred on the desire of the board chairman, Martyn Thomas, to bring England’s most successful coach back into the Twickenham fold as high performance director sitting above the head coach.
However, Woodward had never hidden his disdain for RFU committeedom during his tenure as head coach from 1997 to 2004, and it was to prove costly because he had alienated many of the influential movers-and-shakers within the RFU Council.
They had their own champion in Rob Andrew, who was already well ensconced at Twickenham as performance director, and, after a bitter power struggle in which chief executive John Steele was sacked, with Thomas also tendering his resignation, the status quo was preserved. This left Woodward, whose role as 2012 Olympic high performance director had run its course, staying on the sidelines to pursue a new career as a media pundit.
Woodward, the prophet spurned in his own land, has been itching to get back into international coaching, but the opportunities have been few and far between.
Until now. Resurrecting the French national team from the mire into which it has slipped is a grand project of the prestige and scale that Woodward simply could not resist. As a rugby nation France are second only to England in terms of numbers of people playing the game, while the culture of the sport, especially in the south west, is as deeply embedded as anywhere in the world.
I have no doubt that, should Blanco and company decide to appoint Woodward, whether as performance director or head coach, he is capable of transforming France from a side who, under Saint-Andre, have won just 15 times in 37 Tests. To make change even more pressing, France finished fourth in this season’s Six Nations table, and have not won a tournament they once dominated since 2010.
That confidence is based not just on his England track-record, but because Woodward is a great selector, which is the most important gift a national manager or coach can have. It starts with Woodward knowing what he wants from his team in terms of playing style, and then having the perspicacity to find the right players to deliver it.
England World Cup winners such as Ben Cohen, Phil Vickery, Josh Lewsey, Steve Thompson, Ben Kay, Trevor Woodman and Mike Tindall were not in the reckoning before Woodward arrived on the scene, and he also had the wit to put his faith in Neil Back, an openside previously condemned as too small.
Also, anyone remotely acquainted with the Top 14 knows that while it is home to plenty of overseas stars, there is no shortage of highly talented French players for Woodward to select from.
Woodward faces stiff competition, with triple Heineken Cup-winning Toulouse coach Guy Noves, Springbok World Cup-winner Jake White, and homegrown coaches and former France captains Raphael Ibanez and Fabien Galthie among applicants.
My hunch is that if a coach of Noves experience is appointed he will want to run the whole show, with Woodward surplus to requirements. However, if the FFR are looking to bring through a young coach like Ibanez, then having a performance director/manager of Woodward’s calibre riding shotgun could restore France to a team capable of blasting their way to the top of the world rankings.
What is certain is that if Woodward crosses the Channel to work for the enemy, England’s loss will be a huge gain for France.
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