The Roar
The Roar

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Opinion

The search for rugby's greatest-ever coach - and no, it's not Clive Woodward

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29th April, 2020
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A friend recently sent me this curt email: “What is this about Jones? Did a Martian kill his mother?”

I don’t know about the Martian but the Jones my friend refers to is, I would guess, the British rugby writer Stephen Jones. And the reference to him is related to his list of the world’s best rugby coaches.

Jones is probably the most influential rugby writer in the world, working for The Times in the UK. He has always been an ardent critic of southern hemisphere rugby, especially the Australian and New Zealand manifestations of it. He has equally been ardent to the point of fawning about the superiority of British rugby.

So surprise, surprise, Jones names Clive Woodward – coach of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning side – and Warren Gatland, who led Wales to three Six Nations grand slams and the British and Irish Lions on two successful tours (a winning series against South Africa and a drawn series against New Zealand), as his number one picks as the world’s greatest coach.

Amazingly, Jones rates Mark McCall (who?) of Saracens and England ahead of Steve Hansen, and Jack Rowell (who?) ahead of Graham Henry, who does not make the list at all.

This insult to two All Blacks coaches who each won a Rugby World Cup, won and defended the Bledisloe Cup throughout their coaching reigns, and had stunning Test winning percentages was the reason for my friend’s outburst against Jones.

Jones has a notorious reputation for denigrating Australian and New Zealand rugby.

When you see Jones’ list, the nonsense set out in it becomes evident.

Jones’ list is 1. Clive Woodward (England and British and Irish Lions) and Warren Gatland (Wales, Lions), 3. Ian McGeechan (Scotland and Lions), 4. Mark McCall (Saracens, England), 5. Steve Hansen (All Blacks), 6. Bob Dwyer (Wallabies), 7. Jack Rowell (England), 8. Fred Allen (All Blacks), 9. Carwyn James (Lions, Llanelli), 10. Rassie Erasmus (Springboks).

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World Cup-winning England coach Sir Clive Woodward

(Mike Egerton/PA Wire.)

Looking at this list, my friend has a point.

I know, I know, these lists about greatest teams, players or coaches are intended to be clickbait. It’s a game and it’s a fun game.

But even conceding these points, the list produced by Stephen Jones is eccentric, to put it politely. I make this point because someone with his position and reputation has a responsibility to his profession to have some meat on the bones of his opinions.

But where is the beef in Jones’ list?

Does this rugby writer really believe that Mark McCall and Jack Rowell have any claims at all to be on a list of greatest rugby coaches?

Mark McCall was a greater coach than Steve Hansen? This is nonsense.

And as for McCall and Jack Rowell being named ahead of Fred Allen? ‘The Needle’ never lost a Test. He created an Auckland provincial side that was unbeatable for a number of years. This is Jones nonsense with a triple pike.

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And McCall and Rowell ahead of Carwyn James? James coached the British and Irish Lions to their only series victory over the All Blacks in 1971, and Llanelli to their historic victory over the All Blacks a year later. James was shunned by the Welsh rugby establishment and never given the honour of coaching Wales, which he richly deserved.

And all the coaches on Jones’ list ahead of Graham Henry?

Throughout his coaching career, from first XV schoolboys through to club rugby, the Auckland team that won 50 matches on the trot under his guidance, coaching Wales to their first ever victory over the Springboks through to the All Blacks and a Rugby World Cup triumph, Henry won over 80 per cent of his matches.

Stephen Jones has made his reputation on being unduly provocative, especially when it comes to denigrating New Zealand and Australian players and teams.

But this is not being provocative. It is being stupid.

And here we get to the heart of my friend’s complaint and to the fatal flaw in virtually all of the rugby writing of Stephen Jones. He simply has an obsession that forces him to denigrate Australian and New Zealand rugby.

As it happens, I have met and interviewed four of the coaches on his list: Clive Woodward, Steve Hansen, Bob Dwyer, and Fred Allen. I would rate all of them above Woodward as a great coach.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen smiles at a press conference

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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But Woodward was far and away the most interesting of these coaches to talk to, with Dwyer a strong second. He had a theory for everything and he was one of the pioneers of critical non-essentials theory. This theory has been the basis for most of the coaching regimes of the great and successful coaches in the last 15 years.

Woodward does not deserve to be number one but he has been an underrated coach, probably because of the debacle of the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour in New Zealand.

And it is true that coaching England to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003 was the greatest coaching achievement in English rugby.

The glory of 2003 was extinguished as far as Woodward’s reputation as a great coach by the disaster of the 2005 British and Irish tour of New Zealand.

This tour by the British and Irish Lions was eagerly anticipated by the world rugby media. There was a media furore over the campaign. The world’s rugby media flocked to New Zealand for what was expected to be a titanic and successful Lions tour.

I had left The Sydney Morning Herald as an editorial writer by this time but was still employed by them to write a Saturday rugby column. I lobbied the sports editor at the SMH for me to be part of the media scrum covering the tour.

He immediately agreed to my proposition that I convert my Saturday column to a Wednesday/Saturday combination that focused entirely on the Lions tour, and produce news stories when required.

I suggested to him that the column be given a generic name. That name, I went on, should be The Roar, a reference to a lion’s roar.

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Incidentally, that was in 2005. Two years later when my sons, Zolton and Zachary, told me that they were starting a sports blog that featured comments and articles from readers – citizen journalism – I suggested that the blog should be called The Roar.

In this case, the roar was the roar of the crowd.

On the day when I came to write my first column, I logged on to my computer and found that whatever I did, I could not get on it. I tried every trick in the book to log on.

For over an hour, nothing would come up. I panicked and behaved somewhat like Basil Fawlty, even to the point of rolling around on the floor moaning to my wife, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?”

I moaned and groaned about losing my contract with the SMH. What would they say about my reliability when I couldn’t even produce my first widely advertised column on the tour?

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After about an hour my wife was able to calm me down and I tuned in to the New Zealand national news at midday. The first item on the news stated that the internet was down throughout large parts of New Zealand because a farmer in Taranaki ploughing a field somehow manage to cut the internet transmission lines.

There is a sequel to this story, which brings me back to the Jones list.

I received an email from Clive Woodward’s secretary on the tour telling me that the Lions coach was keen to meet me for a chat. He had read my columns and wanted to have a chat with me about what was happening on the tour.

About a week later I walked into the posh International Hotel in Wellington. Clive would meet me in a few minutes for a chat in the hotel’s coffee lounge.

Clive came in on cue. He was charming in his manner. There was none of the angry Clive we saw so much after matches when things had gone wrong with his team.

Over several cups of coffee and much cake (me) he told me that he had been manager of Xerox in Sydney after his international rugby career was over. To get contacts and a feel for the city, he played rugby for Manly.

He had read my rugby columns in The Sydney Morning Herald. He was intrigued about my story, given my name, and was eager to pick my brain about what I thought was happening on the tour. As I had bagged the play of his side, this openness on his behalf intrigued me.

So we had a long conversation. At one stage, early on, when I suggested I was taking up too much of his time – this was a Test week after all – he told me that he had plenty of time to chat.

One of the big take-outs from our conversation was that his time in Australia coloured his approach to coaching. He was very impressed with the coaching theories of Alan Jones, his coach at Manly.

Alan Jones Wallabies coach

Alan Jones in charge of the Wallabies. (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

And he tried to inculcate into his coaching the Jones theory of a big and powerful pack backed up by a number ten who controlled the flow and pattern of play and released clever backs and back-line plays when the time was appropriate.

He told me, too, that he was first full-time coach England had ever had. He had struggled with England officials to get back-up staff and the facilities that other countries enjoyed, especially France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

At the end of the chat, I gave him a copy of How To Watch A Game Of Rugby. He promised to send me a copy of his rugby memoir, Winning!

When I came to write the chapter on the 2003 Rugby World Cup for the 2007 edition of Watching The Rugby World Cup, I found Winning! provided crucial insights and information into Clive’s campaign to pull off a triumph that no other coach of England has achieved.

I go back now to Stephen Jones and his reason for elevating Clive Woodward to number one spot with Warren Gatland on the list of the world’s greatest rugby coach.

“Sir Clive,” Jones pointed out, “picked up a team with no infrastructure that was going nowhere. Hansen picked up the All Blacks when they were already world champions. The Woodward philosophies are still embraced by head coaches and imitators alike.”

His England side was booted out of the 1999 Rugby World Cup in the quarter-final in Paris after Jannie de Beer kicked five drop goals for the Springboks. Woodward then planned relentlessly for a triumph in 2003.

England players and rugby writers were inclined to label him a mad professor, but there was method in his madness. His coaching was an amalgam of the competitive business practices he had learnt while managing the Sydney offices of the multinational Rank Xerox, the unwavering dedication to winning he had picked up playing rugby for eight years in Australia, the total rugby theories of the legendary Scottish coach Jim Greenwood, and the management ideas of an eccentric Brisbane dentist called Dr Paddi Lund, who had developed a business philosophy around the simple premise of let’s be happy.

Lund practised what he called CNE, or critical non-essentials theory. CNE are things outside core business, but add so much value they ultimately determine the success of an enterprise.

An example of CNE theory in rugby was Woodward’s decision during the 2003 World Cup to force his players to put on new jerseys at halftime. Woodward’s thinking was that at the start of a game the England players in their pristine white jerseys had an aura of invincibility.

This aura tended to inspire England, which in turn led to their opponents being overwhelmed. After halftime, though, in Tests leading up to the 2003 World Cup England had tended to give up their lead playing in their muddied and sweat-stained jerseys.

Put the England players in fresh jerseys after halftime, the CNE theory ran, and the invincibility would return. And voila! Woodward’s England won their first and only Webb Ellis trophy in 2003, playing in pristine white jerseys in the second half of the thrilling final against the Wallabies.

I would put Clive Woodward somewhere in the top ten of the world’s greatest rugby coach, probably in the bottom half of the list.

At the top of my list, though, I would place a coach who doesn’t even make Jones’ list: Rod Macqueen.

Rod Macqueen

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

When you go through Rod Macqueen’s record as a Test coach it is hard to understand why his name isn’t on Jones’ list.

Remember, Macqueen coached the Wallabies in 43 Tests, winning 34, losing eight and drawing one.

This gave him a winning percentage of 79 per cent. The significance of this statistic is that the Wallabies’ average percentage of wins throughout its history is around 50 per cent. So Macqueen’s improvement on this average winning percentage is virtually Bradmanesque.

Macqueen recorded every achievement open to an Australian Test coach. His Wallabies won back the Bledisloe Cup in 1998, defeating the All Blacks three Tests to nil, something that was achieved for the first time in 1929 and has never been achieved since 1998.

So shattering and convincing was this 3-0 triumph by the Wallabies that the New Zealand Rugby Union stopped having three-Test series for some years.

In 2001 Macqueen’s Wallabies defeated a British and Irish Lions side coached by Graham Henry 2-1, the first and only time Australia has won this series going back to the 1930s.

And in 1999, the Wallabies won the Rugby World Cup tournament, conceding only one try in six matches and thrashing a French side that had defeated the All Blacks in the semi-final 35-12.

In 2001, when Macqueen retired from coaching the Wallabies, his side had won every rugby trophy available. Rugby Australia photographed all the trophies and put the picture on their Christmas card for the year.

Between August 1998 and July 1999, and between August 1999 and July 2000, Macqueen’s Wallabies won ten straight Tests. No other Wallabies coach has achieved ten straight Test wins even one time.

There will never be a Wallabies coach who will come close to emulating Rod Macqueen’s Test record.

He is the Bradman of Australian rugby coaches, and the world’s greatest rugby coach.

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