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Clive Woodward - Using a business mindset to change the rules of rugby

Clive Woodward - Using a business mindset to change the rules of rugby

9th May

Clive Woodward set his stall out from day one when he arrived unannounced at Twickenham in September 1997 and asked to be shown to his office. An embarrassed silence ensued; there was no desk allocated, let alone an office. Remaining polite, Woodward insisted he would need his own office, computer, phone and a secretary and, until that was forthcoming, he would work from the reception area. He then hung up his jacket,  unlocked his briefcase and started zapping his mobile phone. Unsurprisingly, an office of sorts was found for him later that day.

Woodward had a degree in sports science from Loughborough University and had coached Henley and London Irish, but his background was as much business-based as rugby. For ten years, including the period when he played for England, he was a salesman and team leader at Xerox, both in Britain and Australia. His methods and daily routine belonged to the business world – not sport – and he knew that being good simply wasn’t enough. Unless you are the best in the business, no return can be guaranteed.

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“It’s no secret that business has always had a fascination with sport but, having been involved with both business and rugby in England at the highest level, my mindset was totally different,” explained Woodward in his book Winning. “I felt sport should have a huge fascination with business. When I started as England coach I was determined to run the England team like a business. In finding out what would work best for England rugby I brought together hundreds of business concepts in a totally new way.

“Xerox had mastered the art of bringing competition into the workplace. Walk into any of their offices and the first thing you would see is a large league table with the sales rankings of every sales person in the company. Your name was there and your results posted daily. You always knew how you were performing. The environment surrounding international rugby was tame by comparison.”

Woodward was particularly impressed with a presentation by a training company MaST International. The owner talked about his experience of helping one crew of 11 yachts entered in the BT Global challenge – an event in which identical yachts were raced by amateur crews under the guidance of a professional skipper. With none of the 11 teams having any advantage in terms of equipment, technology and manpower he argued the winning team would be that crew which executed 100 tasks and processes 1 per cent better than any of the others.

This strongly with Woodward as a basic philosophy, but the difference was that he was allowed to recruit additional expert help. Having won over RFU CEO Francis Baron, Woodward’s budget was increased so he could bring in a succession of specialist coaches or experts – rugby-based, medical, conditioning and nutritional – to fine-tune every conceivable aspect of the process. Amid much scepticism he even hired a sight coach, Sherylle Calder, who runs a company called EyeGym, in an attempt to improve the visual awareness and co-ordination skills of England’s players.

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Aligned with his desire to run England with the efficiency of a medium sized tool factory, Woodward even hired a lawyer. His job was to act as a blunt reminder that Woodward plc is a hard-nosed and professional outfit, wary of all competition and outside interference. This is not only the best prepared team in the history of rugby. It is also the most paranoid.

Over time Woodward made the England team understand they were as much of a business as a rugby squad. First, the exact goal had to be identified and, secondly, the ground rules for how management communicated with each other and the team among themselves. Third came the identification of an individual’s precise role and the output expected from them and, finally, the question of reward or motivation. If you wanted a much-improved level of performance from a workforce that you only controlled for 50-60 days of the year (the English clubs were their primary employers), there had to be valid reasons apart from patriotism for an England player to commit totally. The money for massive wage hikes did not exist.

Woodward’s answer was to treat those involved like highly salaried executives and surround them with a culture of excellence. He took England away from their traditional Bisham Abbey base and installed them in the five-star comfort of Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey for training. He abolished room-sharing and all travel was to be business class. England were on business, treat them accordingly.

A rugby pitch was installed at Pennyhill and, as the World Cup approached and with his enlarged budget nearly exhausted, Woodward, a great networker, persuaded the hotel owner Danny Pecorelli to help fund an upgrade to make it international standard. To help achieve the massive change in mindset needed to implement all this, Woodward devised what he called 6F thinking, the willingness to look at every aspect of the business of winning rugby matches afresh. To illustrate this Woodward always quotes the following test. Ask any group to briefly examine the following statement and to say how many times the letter f appears.

Finished files are the result of many years of scientific study combined with the experience of many years.

When he did this with the England squad former carpenter Jason Leonard was the only player to come up with the correct answer of six – everybody else made it three. The moral, of course, being, don’t accept the perceived wisdom of what everybody else sees.

From that moment onward, 6F thinking became an internal mantra every time England looked at either game tactics or the logistics of running the squad. The result of this were there to see on November 22, 2003, never more so than in the final tense seconds of extra time when England executed supremely well to work Jonny Wilkinson into a position to drop kick the winning goal. TCUP – Thinking Correctly Under Pressure – had been another mantra leading up that moment. And when the deal needed to be sealed, that’s exactly what England did. By design, not by accident.