Sir Clive Woodward has created an Olympic ski star factory in the alps

Ex-England coach Sir Clive Woodward is hoping to produce a skiing gold medallist after creating an academy in the alps… but says the World Cup final ‘would have been different’ if he was part of Eddie Jones’ set-up

  • Sir Clive Woodward hopes to create a gold medallist in skiing inside eight years
  • The former Rugby player and coach believes he has a ‘formula for winning’
  • He led England to a famous World Cup victory over Australia back in 2003 
  • Woodward says England should have won the World Cup against South Africa 
  • His spell in football between 2005 and 2008 is his sole regret from coaching 

It’s the bread that catches your eye. Three identical slices are in clear bags, each pinned to the wall next to a hand sanitiser outside the canteen of a quite fascinating factory.

‘One has been touched by a washed hand, one an unwashed hand, and one hasn’t been touched at all,’ says the man with the plan; a wanderer whose fingerprints are all over this place.

‘After a week the students will see what happens to each and they’ll know why that sanitiser will make them better skiers.’

Sir Clive Woodward’s aim is to create an Olympic gold medallist in skiing inside eight years

We’re 7,000ft above sea level and surrounded by deep snow in the French Alps — an interesting spot to find a winning coach of the Rugby World Cup. But then again, this is Sir Clive Woodward so in the context of what has gone before, it just about makes sense. It’s the next step; the next conversion; the next frontier.

The aim for a 64-year-old coach who bounced from rugby to football to Team GB is to create an Olympic gold medallist in skiing inside eight years.

Thirty years on from his first coaching gig with the amateurs of Henley Rugby Club, he has acquired what he believes to be a ‘formula for winning’ in any professional domain, or as close to one as possible in his ongoing hunt to understand the vagaries of sport. This space-age monument to marginal gains, named Apex2100 and located in Tignes, near the France-Italy border, is the summary of what he has collected on that road less travelled.

‘You can either win or learn,’ the Sportsmail columnist says. ‘I’m still learning, always learning, and this, really, is a product of pulling all of that together. With me it was never planned to go across so many different sports, and not many coaches do, but you learn from it. You learn a lot. We are very happy with what we have built here.’

In time he will offer brutally frank views of the Rugby Football Union, the baffling snubs that have kept him away from the game and, in the case of the recent Rugby World Cup final, his anger at what went wrong. He will go into throw-ins and football and Southampton and what might have been.

The three identical slices are pinned to the wall next to a hand sanitiser outside the canteen

But before all that he has taken Sportsmail on a tour of a £43million academy which, he expects, will not only become the best in the world of skiing but also in the wider world of sport.

As with so many of the posts in the accidental adventure of Sir Clive’s career, his arrival as director of sport at a ski school started with a chat and a bit of a punt.

In this case it was with Hugh Osmond, a British multi-millionaire with a desire to ‘disrupt’ skiing by gatecrashing the strongholds of Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Norway and France and producing an elite competitor from these isles. ‘It was about five years ago,’ Sir Clive says. ‘Hugh rang me one day and we met at the Winter Olympics in Whistler in 2010 where he laid out his plan.

‘I have always loved skiing but had never thought about entering it in a professional capacity. This really caught my interest. He wanted to disrupt skiing and I thought, ‘Yes, why not?’

‘None of it was a plan but in many respects, as I tell my kids, that has been the theme of my career. I played rugby for England, became a teacher, went into business, went into coaching, coached England, worked in football, and then when I wanted to stay in football and try management, Britain (London) won the bid to stage the Olympics.

‘That led to another conversation and a chance I couldn’t turn down, so I had six years at the British Olympic Association. It has not been scripted.’

The former Rugby Union player and coach believes he has developed a ‘formula for winning’

The upshot, after five years of planning, was the opening of the Apex facility last month. It houses 36 skiers aged 12 to 18 from around the world and that number will grow to 160 within two years.

It utilises everything from a NASA-employed sleep expert to a 14-class boarding school full of rubber-based chairs. Like most things here, the rubber was chosen for a reason. ‘The flex is better for blood circulation,’ says Sir Clive. ‘It all helps performance.’

So too do the lights in the rooms that go from bright in the morning to enriched blue in the evening, because it helps students maintain attention.

Then there’s the ban on students using screens after 8pm because it affects sleep and the regular juggling sessions on rocking boards in the strength and conditioning suite, because it improves balance and cognitive function.

There is the nutritionist who worked for Chelsea and an Ashes-winning England team, a workshop with 600 pairs of skis and 400 pairs of boots and the discussions with more than 100 performance institutions around the world, including Manchester City’s academy and the Royal Ballet School.

‘What I noticed about Manchester City was how all the junior players were taught to shake your hand, look you in the eye and take pride in their surroundings,’ Sir Clive says. ‘The ballet school was very interesting — we run Apex through the English language but we want them to have a minimum of English and French and ideally more than two languages.

The 64-year-old believes education shapes everything in his project in the French Alps

‘It was important for me that it is an international academy because that is the best way to maintain a high level on the slopes, having the best from around the world around you. But of course that means you have language challenges and the ballet school had seen massive benefit from mixing students of different languages in their accommodation. It speeds up learning and that in turn improved performance.’

It’s the education thing — it shapes everything in this project.

‘An educated athlete is a better athlete. My approach to sport has always been learning. An athlete who can process and understand in the classroom will be able to do the same on the field or on the slopes. It is about developing skiers who can figure out what they need, to collaborate on how they can improve.

‘From teaching to rugby to now, education has always been at the centre for me. Discover, distil, do. Three Ds. It applies in the classroom and it applies in sports training. If you’re training for corner kicks, discover what the best teams do, study it over and again, then distil it into five or six key points, then train to do it.

‘That is a big part of the aim — which is to be the best skiing academy in the world.’

There is an obvious question relating to Sir Clive and it is more pertinent now, when the Six Nations are raging without him.

It remains a curiosity and a bone of contention that a World Cup-winning coach has not featured in rugby since 2005, having fallen out quite spectacularly with the RFU in the wake of their finest moment in 2003.

That separation kick-started the tour of other sports but it is evidently a source of frustration.

It remains contentious that a World Cup-winning coach has not featured in rugby since 2005

‘If someone had said to me when we won the World Cup that I would soon leave rugby, I would’ve said they must be mad,’ he says.

‘For six years the RFU totally backed me and we delivered. After the World Cup, they would not back what I wanted to do, in terms of wanting more control of the players, so I left on a point of principle and I like to think I’ve been proved to be totally right.

‘I’ve never understood why they, the RFU, have never taken me back as director of rugby and a board member — the position they all knew I coveted.

‘I was head-hunted for the role by my former boss Francis Baron in 2006 when he was CEO. I went through the process on the promise it would be a fair interview and that all the people on the interview panel had moved on concerning the way I left. I did not get the job and was subsequently told I had upset too many people and I was not coming back under any circumstances. My views of the RFU and rugby changed that day.

‘That disappointment really galvanised me into throwing my energies elsewhere. But I have zero regret that I have not been back to rugby — some things are meant to be or not meant to be.’

In the subsequent years of exploring other sports, he has been strong in his views on what has played out in the game where he made his name. His irritation at how Eddie Jones’s England missed their opportunity in the World Cup final against South Africa is particularly clear.

‘I thought we should have won,’ he says. ‘You just look at the players and think, “If I had been there as director of rugby with a firm handle on what was going on, it may have been different”.

Woodward believes England missed an opportunity when they failed to win the World Cup

‘I just feel sorry for that group of English players who missed the chance of a lifetime.

‘Eddie Jones as head coach reporting into me as director of rugby would have been an unbeatable combination, with Jones doing what he is good at — coaching. You see stuff happening and you think, “If I was there that would just not have happened”. England should have won.’

Ultimately it was leaving rugby that led to a director of sport role with the British Olympic Association over two summer Games, including London 2012, and one Winter Olympics, as well as that brief stint under the same title at Southampton. It was his spell in football between 2005 and 2006 that is Woodward’s sole regret from three decades in coaching.

‘It was clear the football world wasn’t comfortable with me in spite of doing all my football badges,’ he says. ‘I had planned to do a year behind the scenes before moving into management. Southampton, and especially Harry Redknapp, were great and we did some good things. I find it interesting that Jurgen Klopp is getting praise for hiring a throw-in coach, which is great as he is great, but we wrote about that 15 years ago!

His spell in football between 2005 and 2006 is the sole regret from his coaching career

‘It frustrates me that people say I failed in football. I didn’t fail because the test would have been management and it didn’t go that far.

‘I had offers from MK Dons and Wycombe Wanderers and I was looking forward to management because nothing I saw in football worried me, but London won the Olympic bid and I couldn’t turn down a chance to be part of it.

‘I do wonder how it would have gone (in football).’

Sir Clive’s path has instead taken a different route — away from football, away from rugby and away from the norms of most sporting coaches who stick to what they know.

What happened with England 17 years ago remains the peak, of course, but it will be interesting to see what happens with this experiment on a mountain in France.

Guiding the English Rugby team to World Cup glory in 2003 remains the peak of his career

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