Jeff Powell

Last updated at 00:00 02 October 2003

IF ANY of the he-men of the Southern Hemisphere or the hotheads from Europe pick a fight with England they will sign their own World Cup death warrant.

Deep down, the South Africans know that already.

If the Springboks, the French, the Australians or the All Blacks are planning to take out Jonny Wilkinson they should think again.

England's response would be to lay down their lives to win the World Cup for their wounded hero.

No foreign coaches are wanted on board. We are English and proud of it. We are England, they all hate us, we don't care.

Welcome to The War Room, Clive Woodward presiding.

For four years, the War Room - so called by the head coach himself - has been the nerve centre of England's obsessive campaign to turn the world of rugby union on its head. It will be reassembled in Perth within 24 hours of Woodward's task force arriving in Australia today.

And in that sanctum, all that England expects of every man selected for this mission will be spelled out in fine detail.

And all explained so quietly as to be chilling.

Woodward's England are an army rallying to one man' s crusade. The words are softly spoken, the message rouses the soul.

'Motivation,' he says. 'Do you think this team needs motivating?

There is not one man with us who is not of the same committed mindset as Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson.

'There is not one man here you would not want beside you in the trenches.

No, rugby is not war but it is the ultimate team game because the players rely so absolutely on each other. There is not one man here who will let a team-mate down.

'All the talk of motivation is bull****. The reality is that the coach can de-motivate the players by picking the wrong team.

'The players know who should be selected for the specific challenge at any given moment. You can't fool them, only deflate them.

FROM the start, my job has always been to create the optimum environment for this supreme challenge, to supply every last atom of the information which will give them the best chance of winning this World Cup, then to pick the team to do the job, game by game.

'You must never allow yourself to be swayed by sympathy or emotion, sentiment or favouritism.

Never.' Is this why he dropped Lawrence Dallaglio from the match against Australia at Twickenham last November in which he was due to collect his 50th cap?

Woodward answers one question with another: 'Do I have to be tough and ruthless to take a decision like that? No, just brutally honest.

'Lawrence hated me at the time but the group knew the level of his game had slipped. Now he has come to realise that if I had not done that to him, England would not be going into the World Cup as favourites and he would not have been going to Australia at all. Now he is back up there with Martin and Jonny, one of our leaders.' Woodward, Johnson, Wilkinson and Dallaglio. They have come together through crisis, controversy and occasional despair not just to challenge the might of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa but to rise above as the No.1 team on earth.

Crisis and controversy came hand in hand when the England squad threatened industrial action.

Woodward, their champion in every other dispute with the Rugby Football Union, backed their claim for higher pay but would not support them in a strike. Everything for which they had striven collectively seemed on the brink of disintegrating.

'There was 49 per cent of me which wanted to down tools in sympathy,' says Woodward, 'but 51 per cent of me would not go as far as refusing to play a match at Twickenham. There were 72,000 people who had bought tickets and I could not countenance disappointing them.

'That is the bedrock of support from which we must build if we are to bring rugby out of its infancy as a major sport and reach a broader population. To attract women. To interest the ethnic minorities. To encourage kids to have fun playing touch rugby so they might grow into England players of the future.

Hard words passed between us at that meeting. Some harsh things were said, some which we now regret, some which I regret.

'Don't you wonder why those conversations have never been leaked, never reported? Given the number of people involved, is that not amazing? What does that tell you? That we were honest with each other and we came out stronger.

'I, for one, will never divulge what was said. There will be no book.

Those secrets will go with me to the grave.' Johnson, Wilkinson and Dallaglio. Every one of them loyal, every one of them vital to the cause, yet not one of them indispensable.

NOT even Wilkinson, the tiger tackler in a terrier's body, the fulcrum of this massive machine, the nearest to perfection that any goalkicker has ever been.

Not in Woodward's estimation. 'I have never said that England will win the World Cup, only that we can win the World Cup. Could we win it without Wilko?

If I did not believe we could, then I should not be in this job. If I did not believe it possible, I could not have taken this team to New Zealand and Australia this summer.

'Wilko is a fantastic player and a wonderful young man so everyone seemed frightened of what might happen to him Down Under.

'But if I had to wrap even one player in cotton wool we would not be favourites to win the World Cup - and happy to be so.

'England had never won in Australia. Think about that.

Never. We had to prove we could do it. Prove it not to ourselves but to the Aussies. There is no hiding place in rugby. There is opportunity for big men. And no opportunity is more priceless than the one on offer now.' He might have added that no man is bigger than the England captain. Crisis and controversy stalked the dressing-room again when Johnson was caught on camera throwing a punch.

Woodward stood firmly by his man through the ensuing witchhunt, taking as much or more of the criticism upon himself.

His reward? 'Look at Martin when South Africa lost their heads at Twickenham. Awesome leadership by example, phenomenal restraint.

'Martin is one reason why I do not go along with all the predictions about a bloodbath in Perth.

South Africa learned at Twickenham that if they try to turn it into a punch-up they will not only lose but they will also embarrass themselves.

'Not just because England are a tough team, though we are. Not just because we would fancy ourselves-to win any fight, which we would. But most of all because we would keep thinking, keep playing, keep our heads and keep punishing them on the scoreboard.

'There is no head-banging in our dressing-room before we go out.

No shouting. Just quiet, intense concentration on the task ahead.' If the tournament runs true to form the draw provides for the Wallabies and the All Blacks to meet in one semi-final, England to play France in the other.

Woodward makes no such assumptions, insisting that he has only the opening match with Georgia on his mind. 'There will be upsets,' he says. 'Our priority is to make sure we are not on the wrong end of one of them.' If England do go all the way to November 22 he will not be surprised if it is Australia, not New Zealand, who face them in the final.

'They are improving at the right time,' he says. 'They will have home advantage and their crowd behind them. And Australia know how to win the World Cup.' It was beating the All Blacks which has encouraged Woodward to believe that England are also capable of such a feat. While former captain Will Carling and Co were

fortheirteam-mates bleating about England falling short of Grand Slams, Woodward was plotting the downfall of the greatest rugby nation of all.

'I would swap five Grand Slams for one World Cup,' he says.

' Beating the other teams in Europe cannot compare with overcoming New Zealand home and away. They have been the flagship nation of rugby union.'

THERE was only one Grand Slam which Woodward considered fundamental to the World Cup cause, the one England won this year. 'People talk about must-win matches but Dublin was our only must, must win game.

'Had we lost, it really would have damaged our World Cup prospects. Not just because of the Grand Slam. This was the game in which I really cranked up the pressure to the maximum. The players knew we had to win. We had to know we could thrive on the pressure.

England triumphed 42- 6 in thrilling style and Woodward says: 'That win sends us into the World Cup as favourites and proud and happy to be so. We have proved to ourselves that we can deal with the extra expectations that come with that status.' Even Carling seems convinced, although Woodward would not be alone if he wondered whether the U-turn from critic to optimist has been prompted by the television network for which he will be working in Australia.

For the record, Woodward has only this to say: 'Never mind his Grand Slams, I have no doubt that Will Carling would have loved to be involved in what England have got going for this World Cup.' Ouch! But then Woodward never shirks an issue.

Like the risk of Wilkinson being targeted for injury: 'Imagine the reaction of our players if Jonny was hurt. They would die to win it for him.' Like the renewal of his contract: 'It's been drawn up but I haven't got round to signing it. The RFU know my heart belongs to England. So does everyone in rugby.' Like the resentment which England encounter wherever they play: 'The rest of the big nations don't just want to beat us, they hate us. It's extraordinary. Take Australia. If they can't win the World Cup they would be happy if they could beat England.

'I don't understand why they hate England so much but it doesn't bother me.

I am very, very proud to be English. I love my country, which is why this is the ultimate job for me.' Bigger than the Lions? 'I was gutted when they gave the Lions tour to a foreigner.

They passed on me without so much as a phone call. But if they call me to be manager next time I will only take it if it does not interfere with England. For me, it will always be England first.' And only Englishmen in the War Room, even though England's other national football team is managed by a Swede?

HE says: 'I find it extraordinary that in a country of 51 million people they could not find a manager of our own. If we reached that position in rugby, it would be a national disgrace.

'And not only for England. Why have Wales gone for a foreigner when there are plenty of good Welsh coaches?' Although Woodward employed Kiwi John Mitchell as his No.2 for three years, he says now: 'I would not swap one of my coaches for a New Zealander or an Australian.

Not one. And in Andy Robinson I have the best coach in the world.' It is Robinson who pores over the videos, analyses every player and sets the new targets.

'This team goes into the World Cup knowing it has no excuses.' says Woodward. 'Together, I believe we have transformed England's rugby. Now we are asking them to surpass themselves. Like Olympic athletes, they are being challenged to produce new personal bests on the biggest stage of all.

'If we do that and it is not enough, we will be able to live with ourselves.

If we give of our absolute best and someone is better than us we will be able to shake their hands and come home to get on with the rest of our lives.

Defeat would only haunt us if we fell below the standards we are setting ourselves. This group of Englishmen are ready to go beyond being favourites.'

So are they ready to become the first world champions from the Northern Hemisphere?

We are talking in a fashionable London restaurant shortly before England's departure. The bright and bubbly Mrs Woodward joins us in raising a glass of champagne to the prospect of an England triumph to compare with Sir Alf Ramsey, Bobby Moore, 1966 and all that.

A prospect made possible by her husband. Clive had played golf earlier in the day: 'That is my release from all the pressure.' Jane, who will act as bunny mother to the wives and girlfriends of the players, laughs: 'And my release from him.' There are those so unnerved by Woodward's commitment that, when they whisper among themselves, they call him crazy.

If they are right, then his is a glorious insanity.


CLIVE WOODWARD'S England squad leave Heathrow last night, bound for Perth and their World Cup adventure. Pictured on the steps of their British Airways jumbo are: 1, Martin Johnson; 2, Jason Leonard; 3, Richard Hill; 4, Ben Kay; 5, Martin Corry; 6, Josh Lewsey; 7, Dorian West; 8, Ben Cohen; 9, Paul Grayson; 10, Neil Back; 11, Lawrence Dallaglio; 12, Trevor Woodman; 13, Andy Gomarsall; 14, Kyran Bracken; 15, Mark Regan; 16, Jason Robinson; 17, Iain Balshaw; 18, Jonny Wilkinson; 19, Julian White; 20, Steve Thompson; 21, Lewis Moody; 22, Danny Grewcock; 23, Phil Vickery; 24, Will Greenwood; 25, Matt Dawson; 26, Stuart Abbott; 27, Joe Worsley; 28, Mike Tindall; 29, Dan Luger; 30, Mike Catt; 31, Clive Woodward (head coach); 32, Dave Alred (kicking coach); 33, Andy Robinson (coach); 34, Phil Larder (defence coach).

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