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Okay, but doesn't dig deep enough
on 6 January 2014
Others have loved this, so I wanted to put another point of view.
First, it's about a subject matter that appeals to me: sport, business insights into sport and arguably English sport's greatest triumph of the last ten years, so I'm biased to like it.
As an account of how this happened, it's an enjoyable read, and he has got a few new sources e.g. Roger Uttley.
However, the basic flaws are that, for an aim at a 'definitive' account, he hasn't got enough sources, and where he does, he isn't sufficiently critical of them.
Almost all of the good bits here were established in Clive Woodward's own "Winning!", and Burns just trots them out. Hence the story about Jason Robinson's shirt being an example of marginal gains (even uncritically copying out Woodward's own verdict of his email to Nike requesting new shirt design becoming a 'legend' in the company: was it really?); Jonny Wilkinson's practice sessions; Woodward picking up the credit card bill when switching hotels in South Africa and winning over the players. If this is new to you, then this book is worth your reading, but otherwise it will hold few surprises.
Worse than that, Burns doesn't dig where he could afford to do so. For example, just before the 1999 World Cup, Woodward took the players out on an army exercise and reviewed with the army officers afterwards who the best people were, and also the opposite: who were likely to hold back the group. In his autobiography, Woodward states that the army captain's opinions of the players chimed in with his own, and led to certain players being dropped from the squad. He doesn't name names, but then, you could see why: as Woodward, he didn't want personally to aim at them. Surely, it was Burns' remit to work out who these were. For example, I've always suspected that Phil de Glanville was one of them, as he never played for England again despite scoring against the All Blacks, but I don't know that. I wanted Burns to have uncovered some evidence on this: after all, it was a seminal moment in selecting the core for the 2003 squad. He just doesn't bother, he just trots out Woodward's account of the exercise, without delving any deeper.
Where he does get new sources, e.g. interviewing Roger Uttley, who says Woodward was a bit of a nightmare on the 1998 tour of hell, he downplays it, as it not wanting to offend Uttley or Woodward. This was a good piece of information and firmer opinion was needed on what it says about both characters.
Occasionally, too, his writing strains to be somewhat poetic, and doesn't quite manage it e.g. the scene set of Henley RFC doing aerobics.
Finally, he needs editing: how many times do you need to be told that Jason Leonard's achievement of 100 caps was especially remarkable given that he played in the front row?
If all this sounds hypercritical, perhaps it is.
Burns has written an enjoyable account, amalgamating various sources, mainly player autobiographies, but especially Woodward's, and arranging them well so that the story coheres. He adds in a thesis about 'growth' mindset, which is hardly rocket-science.
In the introduction, he says he was very influenced by 'Moneyball', but he's no Michael Lewis.
If you want to know more about business and sport and incremental gains employed by Woodward, read his own book "Winning!"; if you want a general, slightly hagiographic, account of the greatest ever England rugby team, then this is probably it. But the definitive version is yet to be written.