Rugby World Cup winning coach, Sir Clive Woodward, talks to The Boot Room about the attention to detail, preparation and culture of professionalism that took England to international success in 2003.
There are a few English coaches who know what it’s like to put their hands on a World Cup as a winner, and following Jonny Wilkinson’s dramatic last-minute drop goal against Australia, Sir Clive Woodward became one of them. Speaking about the culture of absolute professionalism which provided the bedrock for his 2003 World Cup winning side the former England Rugby head coach said: “The players loved it.”

He was also keen to point out that the adherence to the rules wasn’t leadership with a big stick, instead it was a collective agreement not to let anybody in the group down.

“We were big on team culture and behaviour. It wasn’t through me telling them, it was a two-way process. It was me saying what I thought, asking them what they thought and getting their buy-in. It was real pride in not letting anyone in the room down, because if we didn’t let anyone in the room down we wouldn’t let the country down.”

 Former England Rugby head coach, Sir Clive Woodward, watches his team during a training session.
Woodward focused on building a culture where players would give their all for each other on the pitch. Image: David Rogers/Getty Images.

Woodward, who after the 2003 World Cup success has enjoyed roles as head coach of the British & Irish Lions as well as Team GB’s director of sport for London 2012, tasked his squad to be early for every part of their schedule, and to take responsibility for every aspect of their preparation.

“The players had a rucksack and we used to task them to come to meetings prepared – with a pen, paper, and even their own drinks. We used to say ‘we’re not doing your drinks for you; you arrive with your own drinks’.”

Punctuality and responsibility for hydration are aspects of a professional athlete’s life that are easy to imagine, attending meetings with paper and pen is, however, a little different than some cultural norms.

“I remember when Jason Robinson first joined the squad from Rugby League. He would carry a big pad of paper in his rucksack and he wrote everything down. He used to joke and say it was because he wasn’t very clever and he would forget things. He wasn’t, he was the opposite. Like me, he was so focused on attention to detail and he studied the detail. He studied his game and he kept all the information.

“Jonny Wilkinson was famous for it too, but they all were, because they all knew how to do it. In the end you would feel a bit daft sitting there not writing anything down because everyone was writing things down. It became a culture and became important.”

Those things are priceless and you have to prepare as much as you can


Attention to detail is exactly what Woodward believes is required for international success, stressing that you “cannot prepare enough” for such a huge tournament. Woodward crossed codes in 2005 becoming Southampton’s director of football and believes taking care of the detail off the pitch is just as crucial as that on the pitch.

“Our first World Cup games in 2003 were in Perth. We’d never played in Perth before, so on the way back home from one trip we diverted there. The players weren’t very happy because they wanted to go home. But we said we’re going to spend two or three days there so they could get used to the hotel, the pitch, the training pitch, and the coffee shops. Those things are priceless and you have to prepare as much as you can.”

Former England Rugby coach, Sir Clive Woodward, with England's trophies at Twickenham in 2004.
Woodward’s level of detail helped him to amass an array of trophies during his coaching career. Image: David Rogers/Getty Images.

Woodward believes studying the intricacies of the game and your own personal performance is the only way to improve attention to detail. A trained teacher early in his career, revealed to amassing huge dossiers of information about the game – he had seven folders of information solely on defence during his Twickenham days.

Woodward believes such dedication to learning and self-improvement is worth it, claiming the best players and athletes are drawn to coaches who are prepared, insightful and who look at alternative ways of working:

“Coaches should ask if there are different ways of doing things. I think the players love that. They like to play for a coach who is doing the hard yards and the hard work and thinking about every possibility, detail and engaging with them.

“The more you can engage with a player and get them thinking about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it, then it moves the process on from coaches simply telling them what to do, to a process which creates better individuals and teams.”

Players who were responsible for their own learning, development and destiny was Woodward’s aim and the tools of engagement, relationships and empowerment allow it to flourish.

“You develop a culture of people looking after themselves through personal responsibility. You don’t make it soft – because soft would be the players coming to the team meeting and the pen, pads of paper and drinks are all laid out. We didn’t do that.

“I wanted to see which players were serious about our approach and which were not. We wanted to see which players wanted to win. It’s all part of the culture that you can create. Fundamentally, it fits around personal responsibility for the coach and player.”

And the players loved it.

Sir Clive Woodward spoke to The Boot Room in 2014. Article header courtesy of David Rogers/Getty Images.

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