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How 'a clusterf***' London Irish AGM damaged 'clueless' Woodward

By Liam Heagney

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How England World Cup winner Clive Woodward was unceremoniously dumped as boss at London Irish in 1997 has been vividly recounted by Willie Anderson in a newly written autobiography. The former Ireland skipper gained notoriety in his own playing career for marching his national team into the maelstrom of an All Blacks haka in 1989 as well as being arrested by the Argentine military junta in 1980 for taking a flag while on tour with the Penguins invitational side.

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Brilliantly written in conjunction with Brendan Fanning, Crossing The Line is a rollicking read about a no-nonsense second row who was capped on 27 occasions by Ireland before embarking on a varied coaching career that included stints with Dungannon, London Irish, Leinster, Scotland and his native Ulster. 

Anderson retired from coaching last year shortly after his 65th birthday and he spent the past year committing his life and times to a book that is being published this month by Reach Sport (click here to purchase). Among the many entertaining, insightful stories contained in The Flag, the Haka and Facing My Life is Anderson’s short-lived experience of working under Woodward at London Irish in the first year that the league in England went fully professional. 

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Woodward ultimately went on to lead England to 2003 World Cup glory but his experience at London Irish wasn’t as successful as he tempestuously quit in June 1996 after accusing the club of racism and while he soon returned to take charge of the team for the start of the 1996/97 campaign, his time at the Exiles ended acrimoniously midway through the season with new assistant coach Anderson taking over. 

It’s a shafting now colourfully recounted by Anderson, who ultimately branded Woodward a “clueless” coach who was out of his depth in trying to run Irish as a newly professionalised club. Anderson took up the story with his own appointment in 1996 as an assistant and he detailed what quickly transpired to result in him becoming the head coach.   

“The initial approach from Sunbury was to assist the head coach Clive Woodward. He had brought them back to the First Division after they had been relegated under Hika Reid, the former All Black hooker. This was before Clive was knighted, but he was a hero in Sunbury the way they raced back into the top flight scoring tries left, right and centre. The first thing Clive had done when he met the players for training was to take the meeting out of a dark, dingy bar on the ground floor of the clubhouse and out the door onto the pitch. It was like ‘Open’ was to be his policy. 

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“I liked that when I heard it. Inside two seasons he had built up the squad and a stream of Ireland’s best talent were on their way across the water thanks to another transformation: rugby going professional. So season 1996/97 would be the first full-on season for rugby as a pro sport. The IRFU weren’t keen to get on board with it but a load of their best players were mad for action. 

“If that wasn’t enough there would be another turn in the road before I arrived. The London Irish AGM in summer 1996 turned into a clusterf***. Having gone along on the night expecting to be carried shoulder-high from the room, instead Clive ended up walking out in disgust. Some of the older brigade were accusing him of trying to change the club into little England. And he in turn was accusing them of racism over their rules and regulations. 

“If you’ve ever been part of a club you’ll appreciate the AGM can either put you to sleep or set you on a path to war. Gary Halpin had to run out after Clive to try and drag him back into the meeting. He wasn’t for turning. At least not in the carpark. 

When everyone calmed down Clive withdrew his resignation and agreed to continue, but it never looked like lasting… The sheer scale of the transition from an amateur club to a professional club needed a full-time team of people on the ground. We weren’t even close.  

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“Clive was unhappy with the way it ended for him at Sunbury. But he’s an intelligent man and I’d be surprised if he didn’t figure what was behind the door he opened by bringing me in. His head was already half-turned by his business commitments, and pretty soon the club were showing him the door. It happened quickly and brutally. He arrived for training in Sunbury one night and the club CEO Duncan Leopold met him in the corridor to the changing room.

“Duncan looked like a man dancing on hot coals as he waited for Clive to arrive. When the club had asked me would I be interested in taking over from him I didn’t suggest we could tweak a few things here and there but continue under the new boss. I said yes, immediately, I’ll fill the gap. 

“Clive was a big picture guy who had no idea how to fill in the background. When I spoke to him about rugby detail, about planning and getting everyone aligned, about how we would actually play the game, he just zoned out. No interest. That took me by surprise. When there was no sign of it changing I realised we were on different paths. 

“Years later, when I looked at the England set-up for the Rugby World Cup in 2003, you could see how he prospered in a high-powered environment with so many experienced players. In fairness to him, he put that operation together and managed it well. But as a technical rugby coach, he was clueless.”

 

   

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How 'a clusterf***' London Irish AGM damaged 'clueless' Woodward

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