In conversation with Will Greenwood and Ben Fennell

By and

“30 years ago and seven weeks, this was the first pub I came into. I got a note in my pigeon hole, from Dan Sibson and Nick Keller saying, ‘Shakespeare, 5’o’clock’.”

Yet when Durham alumnus Will Greenwood MBE once again ducked through the doorframe of The Shakespeare at 5pm last Tuesday, he returned a World Cup winner. A crucial part of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning side, Greenwood won two Premierships with the Leicester Tigers, before helping Harlequins to two European Shields.

He is joined by Ben Fennell, another Durham alumnus. Fennell captained Durham’s first XV in his time here, first inviting Greenwood to join a pre-season tour to Sicily before his first year had even begun.

Although Fennell’s rugby career perhaps didn’t reach the lofty heights of his counterpart, he went on to collect an Oxford blue before focussing on the world of business. After 12 years as CEO of advertising giant BBH London, Fennell set up his own agency, The Growth House.

More recently, however, the two have united to write a book: World Class, documenting their experiences in the world of sport and business. They sat down, in The Shakespeare with Palatinate to discuss their time at Durham, the world of rugby, and what makes a great team.

“Will did go AWOL for first term!” Fennell joked with us. “He hadn’t had a year off, came straight up to Durham and found alcohol, women, and freedom.” Greenwood laughs in agreement and philosophises.

“What is university life about? Discovery, excellence in sport, a good degree at the end of it – in that order. Ultimately, I studied rugby and played economics.” The pair helped Durham to reach the 1992 UAU final at Twickenham, where Fennell led the Palatinates out in a 34-10 loss to Loughborough.

“There’s something unique and special about this place that’s hard to put your finger on”

ben fennell

They are the first ones to admit that the result was fairly expected. Ben reminisces that, “we sort of knew that we’d played our final in the semi, so we had two extraordinary days of celebration at the Court Inn. Will adds that, “Still, 30 years later, it’s ‘one more day’. It means we go again.”

This gets to the heart of what Will and Ben, still best friends today, look back most fondly on from their time at Durham. Ben explains, “There’s something unique and special about this place that’s hard to put your finger on. There’s just a thoroughly special group of people that you end up finding. My nearest and dearest and closest happen to be people I was at Hatfield College with.”

Greenwood is a Durham legend, who’s since been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University and a place in the Hall of Fame. Yet, despite all this, he still can’t quite seem to believe it’s real. He exclaims, “I should be thanking Durham. This is the wrong way round. Durham was my absolute launchpad, no question. It’s where I changed completely as a human being, grew up and created friendships, and understood life a little bit more.”

Despite his somewhat lackadaisical approach to his own studies, Greenwood is a big believer that going to university is still a key step in the life and careers of the rugby players of today.

“They overspecialise too quickly. There may be a Marcus Smith, Jonny Wilkinson, or Zoe Harrison, who you know will be a global superstar from 18, but these are less than one percentile of those dragged into academies at 12 or 13.”

“You’re sold a dream that you’re going to play for England. You pick up six grand a year, live in an academy surrounded by four other lads, and just play rugby or Playstation. Then at 23 or 24, you realise ‘sugar, I’m not going to make it’, or you rupture an ACL and you’re invalided out of the game.”

“For me, I think there is a way to combine both. Go to Durham and be linked with Newcastle academy, or go to Exeter and be linked with Exeter academy. Go and do your 10,000 hours. Go and play amongst your own age group and develop as a player and as a human being.”

Another pressing issue in the world of rugby is the long-term effects associated with concussion. A group of players, including Greenwood’s former World Cup-winning teammate Steve Thompson, have spoken out about the effects of early-onset dementia from repetitive collisions.

It’s clear that this is something Will has put a lot of thought into. “It’s very sad to hear that some of my friends are going through some really tough times. I have no idea where I’ll be in ten or twenty years’ time, I had some pretty serious concussions in my career and it is a bridge which I will cross. Knowing what I know now, would I still lace up? Yeah. Would I still go through those knocks and those hits to have the journey I’ve had? Yes.”

“Being number one in the world, there was a feeling of relief because we didn’t want to be another choker, another English team that says ‘could have, should have'”

will greenwood

He then went on to praise the changes World Rugby have put in place to protect players, particularly at a junior level. “World Rugby is creating an environment where at a local rugby club, kids are having a lot of fun with their mates. They’re having 700 more touches than they used to in the olden days where it was just one big dogfight.”

“You then get to the stage where you’re 18 or 19 where, just like if you downhill ski, or ride a horse, or box, that there is a danger that comes with a pretty violent sport. We’ve got to a stage where now you can make an adult decision of what is going on.”

There could be no conversation with Greenwood that ignores his exploits in Australia in 2003. Being part of a World Cup winning side is an incredible feat for anyone, but when asked about his immediate feelings having been crowned champions, it was simply “relief”.

“I think you may get a different answer from different teams. Greece winning the Euros might be ‘oh my God what have we just done’. Being number one in the world, there was a feeling of relief because we didn’t want to be another choker, another English team that says ‘could have, should have.’”

“In reality, we played our best rugby arguably eighteen months before. We had a bit of a purple patch, a two or three week blitz. We went to Ireland for three weeks, and went to Australia and New Zealand and won there. But by the World Cup, the finish line couldn’t come quickly enough.”

Quite rightly, that side has been dubbed as one of the greatest English sporting teams of all time. Characters like Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson became icons of British sport, alongside partnerships such as Greenwood and Mike Tindall, which will go down in legend. The makings of a team like this are central to the book which Fennell and Greenwood have written.

“Togetherness, difference and growth” are the three things which Fennell says make up a great team. “Whether sporting, commercial or military, we found those three things at play. Celebrate difference, forge togetherness, accelerate growth.”

Greenwood looks back on his time with England and agrees. “Just look at me and Tindall. Everything I couldn’t do, he could, and vice versa. If you want difference, there you go. In terms of togetherness, I’m at the bottom of a ruck against the French and you have someone like Martin Johnson over you with one bloke in his right arm, one bloke in his left arm and he’s busy headbutting the other Frenchman with his ridged forehead, saying ‘What’re you doing, get out of there’, which creates a total understanding in terms of our culture. This is me, this is you, this is how we look after each other.”

“And then in terms of accelerating growth, you have a guy like Clive Woodward [manager of the 2003 side], who’s bringing in private equity people, hockey coaches, royal marines, trying to accelerate what we’re doing. He wanted us to learn fast, mitigate the cost of failure, bring in interesting people to really speed us up or do those extra one-percenters that’ll make the difference over what we’re doing already.”

“Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to offer ideas”

will greenwood

We finished by asking them each for one piece of advice which they’d gained throughout their extraordinary careers. After pondering over it, Will quotes Mark Twain’s famous epithet: “If you only tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” He then goes on to explain, “At the heart of that is don’t be afraid to speak out, don’t be afraid to speak your mind, don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to ask for support, don’t be afraid to offer ideas.”

Ben interjects, “There’s pressure to be brilliant at everything. I promise you, age 50, no fucker is brilliant at everything. People who manage their careers well focus on what they’re brilliant at, and what they’re passionate about, and they absolutely double down on those things. They put people around them who cover off their weaknesses.”

With his closest friend of thirty years sat opposite, Will is keen to emphasise, “If you find people that allow that to happen, stay fucking close to them. Not everyone gets that. When you find them, then hunker down and stick in the tail of Halley’s Comet.”

Friendship and collaboration are clearly fundamental to Greenwood and Fennell as people. They have the easy banter and almost telepathic understanding of two people who have spent a lifetime celebrating the good times together and supporting each other when things get tough.

Ben got Will’s extra ticket for the World Cup Final afterparty. He tells stories of Will finishing playing for England, before rushing from Twickenham to Rosslyn Park to celebrate his former university captain’s victories in what was then rugby’s third division.

It’s clear that for these two, friendship comes first. They thrive on teamwork and have learned to play to each other’s strengths, and protect their weaknesses, as friends as much as they have in the respective teams they’ve been parts of over the years.

It’s with this in mind that Greenwood tells us that, however great the World Cup win was, he’d give it all back in a heartbeat rather than lose his university years. “Don’t take away my three years at Durham. Those are my mates. It would be like taking away my right and left arm. I cannot overstate just how much fun I had here.”

Image: Durham University Business School

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