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MH Interview: Sir Clive Woodward
Men’s Health:England’s coaching staff claim to have been pushing the team to their limits in pre-campaign training. How important was fitness back in 2003?
Sir Clive Woodward:We put a huge store in 2003 on arriving at the World Cup as the fittest team in the tournament. In my opinion those players were just as fit, if not fitter than the guys you’re going to see in 2015. We had a goal that we were going to become the best team on the field of play but to achieve that the fitness side was colossal.
MH:You were favourites, there’s no doubt about that; how will the current England team deal with only being strong contenders?
SCW:Only one team will start this tournament as favourites; that’s the All Blacks, and rightly so. Saying that, there are probably seven or eight teams who could win the World Cup. I think the big thing for England is that they’re playing at home, but their altitude training will help. I’ve always found that the fitter your team is the more luck you get with injuries. If I was in their camp I’d be getting pretty excited because they’ve got a real chance.
MH:Wales have been preparing rigorously, with training in Switzerland – they were due to go to high-tech camps in Poland and Qatar too. What do you make of their preparation?
SCW:I’m not sure you’re going to win the World Cup by having the best fitness programme but you can certainly lose by having the worst. If you're one or two percent out when it comes to physical preparation, that can certainly cost you. You also do it for the players' mindset: if they believe that the real detail is there, it’s a massive psychological boost. You just don’t want to look back and think “oh, I wish we’d done that”.
MH:What are you hoping to achieve with a rugby training programme? Is it strength in the forwards and speed in the backs, or general fitness?
SCW:In rugby, it’s very specific to your position. A prop forward is all about explosive power, wingers want speed and back-row players are more about endurance. On the other hand, it’s also about how you want to play the game. In 2003, we wanted to play fast and to have the ball in hand as often as possible, so we needed an emphasis on aerobic fitness.
MH:Especially in a World Cup, when there’s the potential to go for 100, 120 minutes in the knock-out stages...
SCW:Totally. I made a point that there’s a lot of substitutions now in rugby where you almost feel the player can’t go for 80 minutes. I think that’s a big error. Every single one of your players should be thinking “I can go here until the final whistle”, whether that’s 80 minutes or 100.
MH:How do you build a rugby player for a tournament like a home World Cup?
SCW:You’ve got to sit with your players and commit them to a 24/7, 365 plan. Tell them “this is the blueprint athlete I want arriving in the middle of September 2015”. It’s got to be taken seriously because fitness is a huge thing, there’s no doubt about it. The game has become more about pure contact. I used to wince in 2003 but the hits were nothing like I see now. You’ve got to be physically strong, especially in your neck and shoulders, to withstand the hits. It’s a real science.
MH:Can you prepare a player mentally for the pressure of a World Cup?
SCW:I honestly think that the only way you can really judge a player is when you see them under pressure in a game. I use the phrase ‘TCUP’: thinking correctly under pressure. You haven’t got to be the worst player to, when under extreme pressure, hit a ruck wrong, give away a penalty, even get red carded – and you’ve just lost the World Cup. I worked with some amazingly talented players who were so gifted yet I didn’t trust that, under the pressure of a knock-out game, they could handle it.
MH:So in terms of training, how would you replicate that pressure?
SCW:There’s two ways of doing it: in the classroom and on the pitch. You can talk through situations and what you would do; if it happens in real life then, there’s a high correlation you’ll think correctly in that situation. Then you go out into the training paddock and replicate situations, maybe without that player knowing, to see how they react to it. You also paint some pretty bleak pictures for them: “How are you going to be remembered? Are you going to be the person who couldn’t handle the pressure?”
MH:Do you think sophisticated equipment is crucial to a team’s success?
SCW:The thing about equipment for me was always about safety and getting the world’s best equipment, no matter where it is. You need to work with top suppliers so there’s no health and safety issues when the players go on it. I think to demand the best on the field of play, you have to give them the best off the field, so there’s no excuses.
MH:England made some fairly drastic decisions when cutting their squad down to 31; how do you go about these decisions as a coach?
SCW:Personally, I’m judging players on a game plan. It’s easy to sit in a pub and say “here’s my team”, but you’re not actually thinking about what the coach is trying to do. We were looking for a multi-talented team where everyone could play in any position, so we were trying to have more skills and more pace than any other team in world rugby. There’s no right or wrong, but you’ve got to pick players according to a game plan. England could go in with a defensive team and win, or go with an attacking team and win.
MH:Did you ever join in the fitness? Were you ever to be found in the gym with the players?
SCW:I made the tactical error of holding the tackle bags. The coach isn’t the most popular person at times and if you hold a tackle bag, you just get smashed. So I stopped doing that. Doing the gym work is really important though and all the support team, all the coaches, used to do our workouts – we took huge pride in being really fit as a team and looking the part. I think it helps the whole image of what you’re trying to do.
Sir Clive Woodward is an ambassador for Technogym, the world’s leading wellness and fitness company.
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