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"My favourite line," Sir Clive Woodward says in his convivial way, "and it's one I always used with my rugby teams, is this: 'How do you want to be remembered?'" Woodward pauses as he fuses together his famous past as a World Cup-winning coach with his more obscure current role at the British Olympic Association. Woodward will always be remembered for an inspired but often eccentric style of rugby management which helped England secure the 2003 World Cup.
Yet now, as this week marks another milestone on the road to London 2012, with it being exactly six months on Friday to the start of the Olympic Games, the exact nature of Woodward's work at the BOA seems vague. Apart from his title as a deputy chef de mission for the British Olympic team, in a task he will share with two other understudies to the nominal main man, Andy Hunt, what exactly does Woodward do in his highly-paid job as the BOA's director of sport?
He partly answers the question by talking to me at the Winter Youth Olympics, where he has just led a team of 24 British athletes as the head honcho, the chef de mission, in Innsbruck. However, while warmly assessing the Russian and the Ukrainian ice-dancing couples, and the more obvious youth of their British rivals, one of whom is only 14, it does not sound like a week for which a man as ambitious as Woodward would particularly choose to be remembered.
The London Olympics will provide a grander stage as the British team is expected to consist of 550 athletes, 450 coaches and 300 support staff. Yet Woodward remains low-key. "We've got 26 sports and 39 disciplines, and the BOA's role is to work with all those national governing bodies to make sure that when they come into the Games there should be absolutely nothing unexpected for them to face. That's our challenge and opportunity. If we do our jobs properly we'll be very much behind the scenes."
This does not really match the voluble maverick we remember cheering on England at Twickenham with his high-profile enthusiasm. Yet Woodward insists he will embrace his comparative anonymity at the Olympics. "I'm very much behind the scenes," he says again, "and in my BOA role I spend most of the year talking not to the athletes but the performance directors and coaches. At the Games I have specific responsibilities for certain sports, just to make sure everything goes smoothly. I'm there to make sure all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed."
It's surprising to hear Woodward churn out humdrum clichés. Apart from his dotting and crossing he also speaks often of "stepping up to the plate". But, with prodding, we get more detail. "I'm mainly going to be at the ExCel with the combat sports – like boxing, judo and fencing. But I'll also be looking out for the volleyball at Earls Court and the triathlon around the Serpentine. I've got a big remit on the football side and I met [the coach] Stuart Pearce a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed that."
Woodward has not abandoned his visionary role entirely for administrative chores. We seem back on familiar territory when he talks about the standards and principles he has produced for a GB team he hopes to unite by encouraging them to all sign a giant flag. It echoes the schemes Woodward introduced before his unsuccessful tenure as coach of the Lions in New Zealand in 2005. The difference is that the 56-year-old is now determined to burnish plain old phrases like "straightforward" and "common sense".
"It's what I call the soft side of sport and I think it's so, so important. We have this concept of Team GB and it's no good just talking about it. We produced these straightforward 16 points – and all I'm asking is that the athletes and every one of the 1,300 people attached to the GB team read it and understand it."
Woodward's key words – "performance, responsibility, unity, pride and respect" – are wrapped around a call for tidiness, punctuality, hygiene, an avoidance of swearing and switching off mobile phones. These are given a further flourish: "We'll also have a flag which is something we can keep for posterity and get everyone to sign it. It will be a way of saying to people that they are part of the team, even when they finish competing.
"They can still make a difference to other athletes by respecting and supporting them. I remember Rebecca Adlington winning her second gold medal in Beijing and I saw her about 10 minutes later and the first thing she said to me was that she couldn't believe how many other British athletes were watching her. She expected the swimmers; but seeing athletes from other sports is quite inspirational.
"It goes back to how do you want to be remembered? You want to be remembered for what you do on the pitch or the pool or the track. But you also want to be remembered as a great team player. I can't imagine a single athlete not thinking, 'Yeah, that's common sense', when they see Chris Hoy and Kath Grainger talking about it on a video we've made for the team. It's not bulletproof. But, if we get it right, it will make a difference."
Woodward avoids setting specific targets for London 2012. We agree that every home nation tends to surpass its own medal-winning expectations – so how will he define success this summer?
"All I would say to that is, generally, I can't think of a sport where you would not choose home advantage. Sometimes these things are hard to quantify but at the Olympics the home team tends to step up to the plate and deliver. We're clear about we're trying to do. We want to get more medals from more sports."
In 2008, Britain surpassed their own expectations by finishing fourth in the medal table. Is fourth-place again realistic? "If you look at our major competitors for fourth, a lot of them are from close by. France, Germany, Italy. The Australians are always going to be there. Japan too. But I look at Germany and France. They're away but they're not that far from home. I've met lots of people from Germany and France and they seem to be tracking pretty well for fourth. It's going to be very competitive."
The persistent question remains – especially when considered against Woodward's own vaunted rugby background. Surely his criteria for success at London 2012 must match Britain's achievements in Beijing? "To be honest, it's not. It's not my role. I have a very different role if I'm coaching an England World Cup rugby team. I can categorically say what I'm aiming for because I'm in charge. When you're talking about 26 sports I have to look at it from a much higher viewpoint. So if Team GB can get more medals from more sports we'll have done well."
Woodward is animated when discussing the latest "really interesting videos" his BOA team have produced for British Olympians – with Michael Johnson, Ed Moses and Ian Thorpe addressing the art of performing for a host nation.
"We call it First Games, Home Games – because for 70% of the athletes this will be their first Olympics. And for 100% it will be their first home Olympics. There is a huge factor in our having home advantage and it's something we've got to really add leverage to. So we've spent a lot of time on this and that work has been first class. I'm very pleased."
He sounds more cynically amused when asked for his opinions on the state of English rugby and, initially, the prospects for the interim national coach, Stuart Lancaster. Having met Lancaster, and been impressed by him, I suggest the new man has done well in difficult circumstances. Woodward emits a dry and withering chuckle. "It's all good media work, to be frank," he says.
"Look, he's spoken a lot of common sense but it's easy to talk common sense. How can we make any judgments when we've not seen how his teams even play? In the end he will be judged solely on results. The Six Nations is a tough competition and he's got a lot to prove."
Does Woodward feel sympathy for Lancaster when it has been made obvious that the latest commanders at Twickenham are likely to settle on their choice of the next permanent England coach after only three games? "No. Considering the fact that he's never coached a team at Premiership level he must be thinking how lucky he is to get this opportunity. You wish him well but international rugby is a tough environment. My advice to him would be to play it down."
Woodward makes it sound as if all the odds are against Lancaster succeeding. "Not at all. A fresh approach was needed at Twickenham and it's good media work. But the closer he comes to the first game against Scotland the more he'll realise this other stuff is irrelevant. The relevant stuff is about how his players hit the first rucks and how they use the ball they win."
Was Woodward shocked by England's World Cup embarrassment? "The only answer is yes. I know Martin Johnson and he's a very pragmatic guy. I went to New Zealand for the last two weeks and [England] had left by then. You just shrug your shoulders. There's no obvious answer.
"We all know about the stuff in the bar but for me the real tipping point was when I saw them bungee jumping. I just thought: 'What on earth is going on?' Imagine Chris Hoy and Rebecca Adlington bungee-jumping a week before the Olympic Games. You're laughing. That sums it up. But this was what the rugby guys were doing in effectively their Olympic Games – the World Cup – and it was sanctioned by the management. Everyone at Twickenham needs to look at himself."
That blunt comment should be framed by a reminder of all the plotting that appeared to surround the former chief executive Martyn Thomas's supposed efforts to open the way for Woodward's return to Twickenham. The scheming and the leaking and the familiar machinations of English rugby politics are as unedifying as the irresponsibility of that now shamed World Cup squad. Woodward, of course, stresses that he only agreed to discuss a possible return to Twickenham in September 2012 – with the BOA's full knowledge.
Asked an easier question, about his plans beyond London 2012, Woodward says: "I honestly haven't thought about it. I've categorically enjoyed my work with the BOA and after London I expect to be focused on the next two Olympics – [the 2014 Winter games] at Sochi and then Rio in 2016. I'm totally focused on London 2012 now. It goes back to that line: 'What do we want to be remembered for?' I hope Team GB will be remembered for winning medals and performing really well at a home Olympics. And I hope people will remember me for having contributed to that success."
Source The Guardian Author Donald McRae