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A different ball game

Two interesting stories this week. One - Manchester United's signing of Wayne Rooney - exciting if rather predictable; another - Southampton's apparent intent to hire England rugby union coach Sir Clive Woodward - surprising and, to many, baffling.

Let me express my interests at this point. My sporting loves are many but none greater than for the oval ball game, which Sir Clive conquered in November of last year when he guided England to the Rugby World Cup. In those immortal words, 'I was there' nine months ago when Martin Johnson lifted the trophy after a thrilling extra-time final victory over Australia at the old Olympic stadium in Sydney.

Of the many thoughts that ran through my head that euphoric night (admittedly most concerned where the next beaker of the sponsors' beer was coming from), I can safely say that the idea of Woodward teaming up with Saints, the football club I have followed since the early nineties, was not among them.

Rooney will surely command the bigger headlines as his career develops. But those of us outside the red half of Manchester and the blue half of Merseyside may be forgiven for turning our attention to an infinitely more intriguing tale, one that sees a true great from one funny old game seeking to find his way in another.

Of course Southampton, and club chairman Rupert Lowe, have been making the news already this season. 'Winning' the Premiership sack race (bad luck Newcastle, that's another trophy gone) by removing manager Paul Sturrock after barely a kick.

Already Lowe has earnt a burgeoning profile in English soccer. Unafraid to fire almost as soon as he has hired (ask Stuart Gray as well as Sturrock), he was the man who brought Glenn Hoddle out of the wilderness. He was bold too in taking on Gordon Strachan after the ex-England coach had ditched Saints for Tottenham. And even bolder after Strachan's exit to consider re-hiring Hoddle (although he was scared off that one). Throw in an impressive business background, a successful stadium move and Saints' continued existence in the Premiership, and you have quite a decent CV.

No wonder Lowe has found a pal in Woodward, the former Leicester and England rugby centre, who made success of his own in the business world, before achieving his status as one of the most revered figures in English sport with last autumn's triumph Down Under.

It hasn't always been so, however. Stints as coach of club sides London Irish and Bath were more akin to the Brian Clough of Leeds than the Nottingham Forest vintage and all was not well in the early years of his national team reign, which began in 1997. An infamous southern hemisphere 'Tour of Hell' saw humiliating defeats to the established rugby powers of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

'That' wonderful night in Sydney. Could Woodward recreate scenes like this at St Mary's?
'That' wonderful night in Sydney. Could Woodward recreate scenes like this at St Mary's?

Crushing disappointment followed in a quarter-final exit at the 1999 World Cup. Woodward's triumph was in transforming a ramshackle England set-up and turning the hierarchy of the international game on its head, culminating in last year's deserved and dramatic Sydney win.

In a sport that only became professional in 1995, Woodward set himself apart as an innovator supreme, bringing previously unseen attention to detail in preparing his players, making them a world-beating side. And while the season that has followed has seen a decline in their fortunes, there has been little to suggest that England, under Woodward, would not be making a formidable defence of their world crown in 2007.

But that's in rugby, right? Exactly. The RFU, English rugby's governing body, took risks in putting their faith in Woodward's ability and 'Nutty Professor' methods. He introduced ProZone, the video analysis facility used by Premiership clubs, to improve performance. He visited the Denver Broncos and returned with vision coaches to help players with their spatial awareness.

But Southampton and Lowe are dealing with a different ball game entirely.

They hope Woodward's motivational and management expertise and his constant search for new techniques will do the trick in bringing the best out of talented individuals. There the problems start. Southampton's players, unlike Woodward's previous charges, cannot be regarded as the outstanding crop of their generation.

Newspaper reports of his new book, suitably entitled 'Winning', say that Woodward claims his passion for football is greater than for rugby. Of course that much overused term, passion, means even less in this case as it will never be married to a tactical appreciation that comes from experience of football at the highest level.

Both he and Lowe recognise that this rules out any kind of role in general play and with it, presumably, team selection and recruitment in the transfer market. So one wonders what Woodward will offer other than the clout that comes with a World Cup winners' medal. Alan Ball used to try that stuff.

Clive Woodward and his son discuss Saints' recent managerial failings. Possibly.
Clive Woodward and his son discuss Saints' recent managerial failings. Possibly.

This week, the Daily Mail trumpeted Woodward as the saviour of the FA as it revealed his decision to quit rugby. Obsessed as it is with ending Sven Goran Eriksson's tenure with the national football team, the Mail was forgetting that one of the prime reasons for the current turmoil in rugby (captain Lawrence Dallaglio has also just quit, complaining of the overwhelming demands being made on players) is the ongoing tug-of-war between the clubs and the RFU over the national team players, who are contracted to their clubs. Ring any bells?

So, sadly, you can forget your 'Woody beds FA secretary' red-top scoops for now. As far as one can ever predict his goals, Woodward won't be overstretching himself in the world of association football just yet. But he remains a very ambitious man, equipped with buckets of self-belief and a record to prove his ability to deliver.

Chelsea have recently hired a man of similar calibre, but while Jose Mourinho may not have been much of a footballer, his record in football management is second to none. Ditto Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Southampton have neither the finance nor the history to be able to bring in such a coach, so Lowe has to think more creatively.

It is that kind of imaginative leadership that will have enticed Woodward, ever eager to accept a new challenge, to St Mary's.

I must be among a large body of skeptical Saints fans, fearing the worst from this unique experiment in transferring success from one sporting arena to another. It threatens the hard-won status the club has achieved under Lowe, despite his eccentricities. It threatens the hard-won status Woodward has achieved in rugby union, despite his eccentricities.

The courage of both parties can only be admired, but there is a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness. Good luck, Sir Clive. Good luck, Saints.