‘Hoodwinked’: Woodward says Rugby Australia should not buy Eddie Jones’ focus on 2027 World Cup

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As the England coach who masterminded one of Australian rugby’s most agonising moments, Clive Woodward’s history with the Wallabies – and rivalry with Eddie Jones – is well known.

But what is less known is the surprising level of care and connection Woodward feels for Australian rugby. And the fact he once considered becoming a Wallaby.

“I lived there for five years and joined Manly when I was 29 or 30,” Woodward explained.

“Two of my kids were born in Sydney. [Then Wallabies coach] Alan Jones even asked me to play for Australia. I started laughing but I went to a couple of sessions, and he was dead serious if he could work out if I could qualify to play for Australia. I just felt pretty uncomfortable, all the Aussies were going ‘what’s he doing here?’ I’d played 20-odd times for England.”

Woodward returned to England, became a successful coach and eventually prevailed over the Wallabies in the famous 2003 World Cup final in Sydney, where he matched wits with Jones and earned himself a knighthood for capturing England’s first – and only – Webb Ellis Cup.

Clive Woodward after winning the World Cup in 2003.Credit: Phil Carrick

‘Sir Clive’ later worked in high-performance roles with Southampton Football club and the British Olympic team, but the rivalry with Jones bubbled back up when the former Wallabies coach took over England in 2016. Woodward was also a media figure by this point.

“I got on really well with Eddie – when he arrived in England, I was his cheerleader and was a big fan,” Woodward told this masthead.

“I interviewed him when I worked on ITV, we had good fun, we caught up a few times for coffee. And he had a great four years. When we started to fall out was that [2019] World Cup final. They played a brilliant [semi-final] game against the All Blacks, but that final was a complete no-show. I don’t think Jones ever recovered from that. It was such a massive disappointment; he’s never been the same coach since.

In happier times … Eddie Jones received the World Rugby Coach of the Year Award in 2016 from Sir Clive Woodward.Credit: Getty

“When he started coaching England again, we went downhill so quickly after 2019 that they should have removed him after two years, the team was all over the place. That’s not his fault, it was the people at the top of the game. But there was no-one at Twickenham who was qualified to say ‘this guy has got to go’. In the end he stayed too long.”

None of Woodward’s criticism of Jones is a surprise, either. He wrote as much in his regular column for the Daily Mail, and after saying Jones would be remembered for “misguided rhetoric and unfulfilled promises” after he was sacked by England, Jones shot back saying he felt “sad” for Woodward.

So while many might imagine Woodward hasn’t lost sleep about the woes of Jones and the Wallabies at the 2023 World Cup, the former England coach says he has not enjoyed it at all, and firmly believes world rugby needs a vibrant Australia.

Dave Rennie’s sacking, just nine months before the World Cup, was a mistake, Woodward contends.

Clive Woodward playing for Manly against Eastwood in 1987.Credit: Brendan Read

“I just couldn’t believe that. I watched that game against the All Blacks when they should have beaten them, and there was that ridiculous [refereeing] decision in the last few seconds,” Woodward said. “They were doing well, and to change your coach before the World Cup … I don’t know why that happened. I think that was a huge error.”

Jones was hired and after early indications of stability, he later elected to discard many of the players from the Rennie era and selected the most inexperienced Wallabies’ squad for a World Cup ever. In an interview with the Daily Mail on Friday, Jones admitted for the first time he has since wondered if that was the right button to push.

“But in the end, I do think it was the right thing to do. The advantage with this squad is that it still has five or six years of growth in it. That will set Australia up well for the Lions series in 2025 and for the 2027 World Cup,” Jones said.

This argument, in particular, irks Woodward. It is the same rebuilding rhetoric Woodward opposed in Jones’ last years with his England, and he questions why Australian rugby administrators – like the Rugby Football Union before them – would accept it.

“I think when you become an international coach, it is about today, it’s not four years time. It’s a good job if you can get it, going around persuading people it’s not about today,” Woodward said.

“You are coaching the team and if you get beaten by 50 points, that’s where you are today. I think it is a cop-out. The moment you talk about a development team, you’re not going to win, so why are you are even in the tournament? You should be competing, so you should be sending the best team you have today. If you start saying you’re developing for the future, it’s the wrong thing to do and it’s the wrong thing for the country.

Eddie Jones with the Wallabies in Lyon ahead before the loss to Wales.Credit: AP

“When I picked a team, almost without exception I could say to everyone this is the strongest team to play for England this weekend. And the players loved that. There was no development, leave that to schoolboy teams and under-21 teams and the “A” teams. I think that’s your job.

“The problem is administrators come in and they get hoodwinked by all this stuff. They don’t really understand the sport, they come in with a business background and are successful people and they get hoodwinked by people like Eddie Jones, who start talking about the Lions tour and 2027.

“The moment you do that, you not only lose it with the public, you lose it with the team. Because you can’t talk about a development team. It’s not about that.

“I don’t blame Eddie for that. If he can get away with it, good on him. But I do blame the guys in charge, because they’ve just been hoodwinked.”

Clive Woodward holds the 2003 Rugby World Cup trophy aloft.Credit: DAVID MOIR

Jones recently referenced the England tour of Australia in 1998, when an inexperienced team coached by Woodward was smashed 76-0 by the Wallabies, but several of the side went on to win the 2003 World Cup.

“Well, what I would say is on the ’98 tour, I promise you, I picked my strongest team,” Woodward replied. “We got smashed but I couldn’t take the top 20 or 30 players, for various reasons, being rested and so on. I didn’t want to take a development team. But on that day, I picked my strongest team. We got what we deserved.”

Asked about Jones contentiously talking with Japan about a coaching role on the eve of the World Cup, Woodward said his major question about it was the impact on his coaching focus.

“You are at a World Cup and if you are talking to another [country] – if, because I don’t know if he was – but just why? Why talk to anybody else?,” Woodward said.

“My favourite line in sports, and I saw this in the Olympics when I was there, is you just cannot get distracted. Playing at that level, even minor distractions … talking to these people, doing a book, doing podcasts … these are just all huge distractions. You just have to get the job done. Do all this after you have won the World Cup, not before.”

The hope is Australia’s poor World Cup campaign in France will be a catalyst for overdue structural change, but Woodward argues the seemingly insatiable desire of Rugby Australia to poach rugby league players needs to stop. In a spicy take, Woodward says there has only been one genuinely successful cross-code convert: Jason Robinson.

“I just shook my head when you’d just had one of your worst losses ever, and the guy who is heading up your union [chairman Hamish McLennan] starts talking about signing up more league players,” Woodward said.

“If I was a rugby union player, that’s not what I want to hear. In the 2003 game, [Lote] Tuqiri, [Mat] Rogers, Wendell Sailor … they’re all great players but playing union, they didn’t worry me at all. I was delighted Joe Roff and [Matt] Giteau were on the bench, that’s all I will say. And nothing has really changed.

Code hoppers: Mat Rogers with Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri.Credit: Tim Clayton

”We saw it with Sam Burgess when he came into the England team. There is only one player, Jason Robinson. He made a massive, massive difference to me and what he brought to that team. I actually love rugby league, we used to go and watch Manly play when ‘Bozo’ [Bob Fulton] was coach. They can live alongside each other, so that’s why it is sad to see a war going on between the two codes because there is only one winner in that. I don’t think rugby union is going to catch rugby league in Australia.

“When you are forking out big money for these leaguies, that money should be spent on development and trying to make your own. You have to be really careful. If you have all this money, crikey, give it to the development of young union players.”

Woodward believes Australian rugby can get back on its feet but says it will require strength from administrators.

“Australia has some great players and has a good team. I genuinely hope you get back to just focusing on the next game,” Woodward said. “I think fundamentally Eddie Jones is a good coach, he falls down on the management and leadership side, but as a coach he is second to none.

“Just focus on that next game. Stop focusing on the Lions and the World Cup, because it just doesn’t do anyone any good whatsoever. You have to be picking your best team to play the next match, as if it is your last game ever. That’s what international rugby is about.”

Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match streaming ad-free, live and in 4K UHD with replays, mini matches and highlights available on demand.

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