When Ted Woodward first played rugby, he hated it.
As a 13-year-old soccer fan, and a fresh face on the playing fields of Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, the young Woodward had found himself playing an alien oval-ball sport – and positioned, of all places, in the front row. ‘I thought it was too rough, and I used to hide away so that I didn’t have to play’, he recalls.
But in just over six years’ time, on 5 January 1952, a 20-year-old Woodward – barely off those same playing fields – would line up on the wing at Twickenham for his England debut. It was the beginning of a four-year England career, and a highlight in a life which, he believes, owes much to the sport he came to love.
John Edward Woodward was born in the village of Lane End, Buckinghamshire, in 1931. His mother was a housewife, his father ran a butcher’s shop, and he was a sporty child, playing soccer for the county. When the time came to head to secondary school, his love of sport was foremost in his thoughts.
‘I went to High Wycombe for an interview, and the headmaster asked me why I wanted to come to the Royal Grammar School. And I said “sport, Sir”’, he remembers. And so it was that with no previous knowledge of the game, or any known history of family involvement, Woodward soon found himself playing rugby – and despite the inauspicious start, it didn’t take long for him to warm to the game.
His athleticism and speed – he would go on to win the 100-yard sprint at the All-England Under-17s Schools Championship – saw him moved out of the front row and on to the wing, where he quickly developed into a promising young player. His sports master, a Harlequin named Ron Emery, took the young boy under his wing, and through Emery he met Wasps legend Neville Compton. ‘He was “Mr Wasps” in those days’, remembers Woodward, ‘and he invited me to play for them.’
Woodward took the opportunity, and the teenage schoolboy suddenly found himself playing senior club rugby. In the late 1940s, it was an eye-opening experience. ‘The people who were playing for the Wasps in those days were a lot older. They’d just come out of the war and wanted a good time. They did all sorts of things which you’d never really believe could happen! They were all fantastic characters.’
But as well as learning the ropes off the pitch (‘some of the older guys used to take us to nightclubs, which I’d never seen before!’), Woodward was an immediate hit on the pitch. Not that such success bought immediate fame and recognition, as it might do today. Even his own father was sometimes unaware of his exploits. ‘I played, when I was 17, in the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham’, he recalls. ‘And my father was in the butcher’s shop on the Saturday afternoon when we were playing, and somebody said to him “Your son has scored three tries in the final to beat the Quins – did you know?”. And he said “No”.’
Greater honours soon came – first county rugby, and then the captaincy of England Schoolboys (for whom he found himself pitted against another promising young star by the name of Cliff Morgan). Given his rapid rise, did he have ambitions that he would soon wear the red rose in a full international? ‘I don’t think I aspired to get to the top, no’, he says – ‘I just thoroughly enjoyed playing rugby.’
Despite this, Woodward’s talent was soon spotted by the England selectors, and he was picked for an England trial at just 19 years old – but he couldn’t go. After leaving school he had, like many young men at the time, been called up for national service, and was serving in the RAF when he heard of England’s interest. ‘I didn’t go – I said “I can’t go because I’m in the Air Force”. I never even thought about it. I thought, “this is what I’ve got to do, I’ve got to be in the Air Force, I’ve got to do my training”. It was quite extraordinary really.’
The young winger’s rugby connections had worked in his favour during his time in the RAF, and had meant he was able to continue playing regularly for Wasps. ‘We had a Wing Commander playing for the Wasps, and he seemed to pull a few strings. And so I was posted to Uxbridge, so that I could play for the Wasps on a Saturday.’ Having continued to impress in club and county rugby, it was therefore not long before Woodward was picked for another England trial – to play for the ‘Possibles’ against the ‘Probables’ in the first trial of the 1951/52 season.
‘You used to wait for a few days after the trial to see if you got a letter to say you were going to be picked for the next one’, recalls Woodward. It was good news in his case, and after scoring three tries in the next trial match, there was even better news to come. He had been picked to play on the wing against South Africa at Twickenham.
‘Your first cap for England is an incredible thing’, says Woodward. ‘It’s the be-all and end-all of a rugby player’s career, isn’t it? It’s something very special.’ But despite the enormity of the occasion, he felt immediately at home in an England jersey. ‘When you get picked for England, you shouldn’t be worried about who you’re going to mark or what you’re going to do. It probably sounds conceited, but it wasn’t – I felt confident, I was at ease with playing rugby.’
England lost narrowly that day, but it was the start of a 15-cap career for the 20-year-old winger. He was retained in the side – no mean feat after a loss in those days – and played in the next game against Wales, scoring his first international try. ‘I can remember it. I ran towards the corner flag – it was to the right-hand side in the top corner of Twickenham. And Gerwyn Williams was the Welsh full back. He tackled me, but I went over the line, and unfortunately he broke his shoulder.’
Woodward, indeed, was unusually powerful for a winger of his era. Weighing in at fifteen stone, he represented a significant physical challenge for his opponents. ‘Fifteen stone for a wing three-quarter was unheard of’, he says. ‘I was probably one of the biggest wings playing rugby in those days.’ What’s more, he wasn’t afraid to use his size to his advantage. ‘I thought “Well the first time I get the ball I’m going to run straight at them as hard as I can and try and soften them up a little bit!”’ Not a pleasant thought for his opposite number.
As well as the glory of playing at Twickenham, becoming an England regular brought with it the practical concerns of the amateur era. Woodward worked as butcher, having taken over the family shop following the untimely death of his father. ‘At 19 – and my sister was just 17 – we ran the butcher’s shop together’, he says. ‘It was quite difficult because I’d never been a butcher in my life’. And the more rugby he played, the more difficult it became to balance his commitments. ‘It wasn’t very easy – sometimes I had to go to work first thing in the morning on a Saturday morning. It was more difficult to fit it in when I played for England. We met on a Friday morning, so I had to leave my sister in charge of the shop. She was a wonderful sister to me, to be able to carry on with the butcher’s shop while I went off and played rugby’.
Indeed, once he was a more settled member of the side, his commitments at the shop saw him miss a crucial England trial – on the advice of the President of his county side. ‘When you’re butchering, a very busy time is at Christmas, and one of the trials was at Christmas time. Cyril Gadney was President of Middlesex in those days, and quite high up in the Rugby Union, and he said “you should drop out of that one, because they’re bound to pick you for the next one”. Obviously I was worried, but coming from him, well I thought – he must know.’
He did know – Woodward kept his place in the side, and embarked on his second season as an England player. During that season – 1952/53 – he scored in wins against France and Scotland, and also played in a victory against Wales and a draw with Ireland. England finished as Championship winners, but Woodward does not recall any great fanfare. ‘Do you know, I can’t even remember thinking that we’d won a Championship. There was nothing exceptional about it. There was no big deal made out of it.’
If that lack of public celebration was in keeping with a bygone era, then so was the day-to-day running of the England team. Back in the fifties, there were no training camps, no performance analysts, no attack coaches. ‘We used to meet up on a Friday and run up and down the pitch at Richmond. And that was it. The selectors weren’t involved. We never had any policy of how we were going to play. We just went out and played the game, and it was all off-the-cuff.’ The most coaching Woodward ever received during his time with England consisted of a few rather basic words from the Chairman of Selectors. ‘He said to me, “Woodward, I want you to get the ball, and when you get the ball, I want you to run as hard as you can to corner flag”. And that was the only thing anybody ever said.’
The modern phenomenon of players receiving a suitcase-load of personalised kit to go with their sponsored boots was also a long way off. ‘We were given a shirt and a pair of socks’, says Woodward, ‘but we had to buy our boots and shorts. We weren’t given all our kit, like they are today’. But does he begrudge the modern player the perks of professional rugby? ‘If I was playing today, I would do exactly what these guys are doing. Because you’re looking after your future, aren’t you? I would never be against professional rugby.’
After the Championship-winning season, he would play another eight times for England, including a 5-0 loss against the touring All Blacks in 1954. His last game came against Scotland at Murrayfield – an 11-6 win in the final game of the 1956 Championship. At a time before overseas tours, World Cups and annual autumn internationals, 15 caps represented a lengthy international career.
With his England career at an end, Woodward continued to play for Wasps, eventually switching to play at number 8 due to a series of hamstring injuries. But perhaps rugby’s greatest influence on his life came when he decided, at the age of 29, to set up a sports shop.
‘I had a great friend called Louis Stalder, who also played for the Wasps. He was working for an insurance broker, I was butchering, and we were both fed up. And we said “Well why don’t we open a sports shop?” So we decided to open one in Gerrards Cross.’
The shop proved a great success, thanks in no small part to Woodward’s fame as an international. ‘It was through rugby that we got an awful lot of business. We used to supply Llanelli for all their shirts, and Middlesex, Blackheath, Wasps. We used to supply the Air Force, the Navy, RAF stations in Germany. Because you played rugby, and you were known, you got an awful lot of business.’
The shop began to take up more and more of his time, and with a young family to look after, something had to give. ‘I’d got three young children – two daughters and a son – and I wanted to give them some time, and my wife some time.’ So, at the age of 34, Woodward decided to hang up his boots. He had played for Wasps for his entire career, and as well as England, had represented the East Midlands, Middlesex, London Counties and the Barbarians.
Despite invitations, Woodward has had no formal involvement in rugby since he finished playing, but remains a firm devotee of the game. He enjoys watching on television these days, though feels that it’s ‘much tougher’ for today’s players now that the game is more physical and the risk of injury is higher. Rugby has also begun to run in the family thanks to Ted’s involvement. ‘My son captained England Under-18s and played for the Navy and Rosslyn Park. And my grandsons from my daughter’s marriage – one has played for England Under-16s, Under-18s and Under-20s, and the other has played for England Under-16s. And my son’s boys down in Cornwall, both of them have played for Cornwall’.
And so it is that now, at the age of 84, Ted Woodward looks back on his life so far with great satisfaction. ‘I’ve had a fantastic life. I’ve got a good wife, and three marvellous kids, and I’ve been successful in business.’ And what of the role that rugby has played? ‘It affected my life incredibly’, he says. ‘I owe a lot to playing rugby.’
If only his 13-year-old self could see him now.
About the Author – Joe Hall, a PhD researcher at De Montfort University, is working in collaboration with the World Rugby Museum on a project titled ‘An Oral History of England Internationals, 1945-1995’. Keep up to date with his progress @JoeEdwardHall