By BRIAN VINER
LONDON - The England rugby union team's hotel is a square old edifice with ambitious modern extensions, not unlike English rugby.
It stands in handsome grounds – complete with golf course and, perhaps more importantly, rugby pitch – close to the Surrey-Berkshire border.
In the lobby, someone has strived just a little too hard to recreate the spirit of merrie olde England.
An elaborate sign pointing to the dining-room advises guests that "a most veritable fayre of the finest ingredients awaits your consumption". It is tempting to imagine Jason Leonard saying "yeah, but where's breakfast?"
Clive Woodward, mercifully, gets to the point rather more quickly.
My meeting with the England manager is scheduled for 8am sharp, and after establishing our six degrees of separation – Woodward was best man at the wedding of my wife's best friend's sister – we get down to brass tacks.
How much of his preparation for England's opening match in the Six Nations' Championship, against Wales on Sunday, focuses on the opposition and their likely strategy?
"All of it. We've thought a lot about their team and what they're going to do. We are very interested in their team selection. And I thought they played well against South Africa in the autumn. They really should have won the game and I wish they had, because it would have been great if we'd both come into this game having beaten South Africa. Wales have certainly got excellent big-match players. You've got to look at 9, 10 and 12, Howley, Jenkins and Gibbs. And Charvis and Quinnell are playing very well in the back row. They put a lot of emphasis on the scrum, but so do we. That's the key area. We are looking for the French referee to be very strong in how he referees that part of the game."
Woodward did not find time to plough through the Sunday newspapers and their acres of Six Nations previews, so I inform him that the former Wales captain, Eddie Butler, cheekily tipped England, hot favourites to win the Championship if not necessarily the elusive Grand Slam, to lose against both Wales and Ireland. Woodward smiles.
"We haven't even thought about Ireland. We haven't thought about any game apart from this one since we finished against South Africa. It's an old cliché in sport but we only look at the next game. And yes, we know we can lose to Wales. But they'll have to play well. It's nice for a coach to know that the other team will have to play out of their socks to win."
He is delighted, he adds, that England are to open their campaign in the huge pressure-cooker that is Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.
"It will be a really tough game down there which has focused our minds even more. It is no coincidence that all the home teams won in the quarter-finals [of the Heineken Cup] at the weekend. Home advantage is a big factor. On the other hand, it can be more difficult to focus minds for a home game. This is the start we wanted and everyone's really up for it."
Again, I fill him in on what he missed in the Sunday papers. According to flanker Neil Back, winning the Grand Slam has become an obsession in the England camp. Does Woodward concur?
"It's not an obsession with me. My obsession is to make England the best side in the world. That's my only goal. And winning in South Africa, then winning in the autumn [against Australia, Argentina and South Africa] was a big step forward, but we're still a long, long way from it. We can still lose games of rugby. But if we have the odd setback it's important not to go overboard about it. We need to learn from it and move on."
I am not fooled by Woodward's circumspection. There is no doubt that he burns with desire to win the Grand Slam, which he has experienced only once, as a player, back in 1980.
And the significance of that achievement perhaps passed him by, because it was done and dusted after the first four of his 21 games for England.
"I was one of the young pups," he recalls, "but a lot of the team retired after that. Uttley, Neary, Beaumont, Cotton, they'd been trying their whole lives to win the thing."
Before 1980, England had not won a Grand Slam since 1957. In the last decade they have won it twice more, but not yet during Woodward's tenure.
It seems to me, and perhaps to him, that his team will never be more ready than they are right now.
They should not believe too much in newspaper talk, which decrees that the Championship is theirs to lose. All the same, Woodward knows that his lads are deservedly favourites.
"We have a better squad now than we had 12 months ago," he says.
"We have more depth, and picking the team – that's not just the starting 15 but the 22 – was really difficult because a lot of players are on form. There are only one or two positions where we have a problem if the guy gets injured.
"The obvious one is 10. Wilkinson is out on his own at the moment, which is fantastic but also a worry. He is way ahead of anyone else in England."
Does Woodward take credit for Jonny Wilkinson's remarkable progress? "No, the credit belongs to him and his club. Newcastle have been fantastic for him, and Rob [Andrew] has handled him very well. I have watched him mature.
Two years ago I had to encourage him to say things in team meetings, because he is the guy in charge out there. He was a little bit nervous, but now he totally runs the show.
"Ten was always the Achilles heel of the team, which was ridiculous because it's the key position. In American football terms, it's the quarterback. So it's great to have Wilkinson but we need someone to put pressure on him."
Saying that, there are some talented boys pushing through, because Wilkinson has been a role model for them. There's Andy Goodall in the A-team, and a guy called Olly Barker playing in Australia.
We need two or three and we're working on it. And the people at Twickenham can see the hard work going on behind the scenes. The RFU is a much-maligned body, but they've been excellent in terms of investment, time and patience. They've stayed faithful to me."
And thank heavens for that, for in his own sweet and sometimes not-so-sweet way, Woodward is clearly the man to take England forward.
Nevertheless, I confront him with the observation of former England stalwart Paul Ackford, to the effect that when he took over towards the end of 1997 he was a "poor" selector and an "indifferent" coach.
"I think Ackford's wording is wrong. I don't think I was indifferent. I was inexperienced. And you can't underestimate the political upheaval that was going on. I've a lot of respect for [his predecessors] Jack Rowell and Geoff Cooke, but they were coaching at a relatively normal time. Also, you walk into a job and think you're good enough, but looking back I realise I had no preparation for it. It's my big criticism of the RFU. Myself and [his assistant, Andy] Robinson were prime candidates. We were coaching Premiership clubs, we'd played for England, we had degrees in phys ed, but we'd had no exposure to élite coaching in terms of the international game.
"I would love to have worked as No 2 to Rowell or Cooke. But the RFU got themselves in a real hole. They wanted to move Jack on and they had no replacement. I didn't even apply, I got a phone call. Now it's different.
"It's vital that when I step down the next person has experience at this level. We have Nigel Melville in charge of the Under-21s. He could do this job, given more experience. We have Robinson and [Phil] Larder and [Brian] Ashton on board. Top coaches. So I hope that my successor, whenever that time comes, is already with us."
As for Woodward being a poor selector, he is quick to point out that England have only lost one Championship match in each of his three years in charge.
"We got dicked against France, we should have beaten Wales, we got belted by Scotland. People talk about the weather last year, but that's absolute nonsense. It rained 20 years ago when I played; we know how to play in the rain. But we were knocked off our stride, the scrum and line-outs went to pieces, everything deteriorated in front of me.
"The thing is, you learn more about yourself and your players when things don't go according to plan than when everything's rosy. So when South Africa started belting us in Bloemfontein this summer we didn't react. At Twickenham [against Australia and South Africa] ... well, I don't want to go into it but there was a lot going on and the guys didn't lose their composure. They kept cool, especially in the last few minutes against Australia. It was a very unEnglish thing to win in the 87th minute, but they did it. And that's down to coaching. We talk through it. We say 'here's the score so what are we going to do?' And [Martin] Johnson has done a really top job. He's proven beyond doubt that he's the man to lead England."
This warm endorsement of his captain belies the fact that, two short months ago, Woodward and Johnson were at loggerheads with the England players threatening to strike over pay. It was a sad, unseemly episode, from which Woodward alone emerged with his reputation enhanced.
"I saw what they were after and I thought it was very fair, in fact I said that if I was their agent I'd be going for a lot more. So it wasn't that they were being greedy. But what I was not going to tolerate for one moment was them threatening not to play. Maybe I was too confrontational. I got all the main people into this hotel, and said 'don't leave until this is sorted out'. They couldn't sort it, so I told them to go away for 24 hours, but if they weren't back by midday on Wednesday I wouldn't pick them anyway.
"I said, 'you've got to start thinking that what you're doing may be wrong.' But they thought it was right, which I respect. If anything it has made us all stronger. They were totally united in this thing. There was no weak link. And we can take great pride in that, because we have fostered that environment."
With that, my 40 minutes with Woodward are up. He is due to meet his coaches, and I am ready for a most veritable fayre of the finest ingredients. Some coffee and toast, anyway. But before we part I want to know if it rankles that his opposite number on Saturday, the Wales coach Graham Henry, was chosen ahead of him to coach the Lions this summer. Hell, Henry is a New Zealander. It must have come as a slap in the face?
"No. I'm not even sure I would have done it. We've got an England tour of America and Canada at the same time, which is very important for our development. Sure, it would have been nice to get the opportunity, but I wasn't considered or even consulted. My only thing is, we have some very talented coaches in Britain and sometimes [the authorities] don't realise it. The grass always seems greener. So if they're not going to choose a British coach they have to be sure their guy is better, and I'm not convinced that Graham is better than some of our guys. In saying that, I went on two Lions tours myself, it's a great tradition, and he has my full support. I had a long chat with Graham just the other day."
During which they compared notes for Sunday's match and warmly wished each other luck? I doubt it
- HERALD CORRESPONDENT
By BRIAN VINER