The annual general meeting is a tradition that can either unite colleagues or divide them, and it was an example of the latter that helped pave the way for Clive Woodward ’s exit as London Irish coach.
That’s according to former Ireland captain Willie Anderson, whose new autobiography reveals details of a “clusterf***” AGM that helped convince Woodward he was better off elsewhere.
Many will remember the two-time British and Irish Lions tourist for guiding England to the Rugby World Cup in 2003, but his initial introduction to rugby’s professional era was a bumpy one.
The sport was still being rolled out in its professional capacity when Woodward got London Irish promoted back to England’s first tier at the second time of asking in the 1995/96 campaign.
Anderson was initially hired as an assistant coach in 1996, but he recalls in Crossing The Line how the AGM just prior to his arrival quickly saw the mood of the club take a turn for the worse.
“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,” Anderson recounted.
“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."
The ‘racism’ allegations came after those in attendance at the AGM called for all club officials to be of Irish descent, which Woodward is not.
The future England and Lions coach tendered his resignation that evening but later withdrew it, initially leading London Irish into the first English Premiership season in 1996/97.
It wasn’t to last, however, as the former centre later quit in November 1996 (for real, this time), leaving former 27-cap Ireland international Anderson to take over at Sunbury.
Woodward’s business commitments were at the time cited as a major contributor as to why he couldn’t devote himself to the club, though he swiftly found employment with Bath in 1997.
Former second-rower Anderson continued, suggesting the transition to the professional arena was too great a task for Woodward at the time: “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.”
Many England fans in particular may take umbrage with those comments considering Woodward’s technical prowess was enough to bring them their only Rugby World Cup crown to date.
As for Anderson—the man who famously led Ireland to walk down New Zealand’s haka in 1989—he lasted less than 18 months in the head job at Sunbury and was replaced by Dick Best in February 1998.
Woodward can now look back on his rugby legacy and feel content with his contribution, but his beginnings in the professional game were anything but smooth.
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