Bowring braves world of hostility

Chris Rea studies the arduous task facing the new Welsh coach
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LAST year I was invited to participate in a balloon debate organised by the Lord's Taverners. It was a splendid occasion, held appropriately enough in the Long Room at Lord's. The four contestants, in their imaginary balloon, had seven minutes in which to convince the audience that their chosen champion was the non-pareil among sporting legends. Failure to do so would mean instant rejection from the balloon and summary dismissal from the debating platform.

The four nominees were Sir Stanley Matthews, Arnold Palmer, Gerald Davies and . . . Harold Caplan. If the last name doesn't immediately trigger a response don't bother to reach for your sporting Who's Who. Harold, I do assure you, will not be there. The choice of Sir Tim Rice, Harold Caplan was, and for all I know, still is, the wicketkeeper for Sir Tim's own team of abject cricketing failures, the Heartaches, and is therefore by definition very probably the world's worst wicketkeeper. Yet that evening, in such august company, Mr Caplan made it all the way to the final, carried through on a wave of public sympathy and Sir Tim's irresistible argument that, of the four nominees, Caplan was the only one who had bothered to turn up.

I was reminded of that occasion during last week's shambolic election contest for the job as Welsh coach. Of the three leading contenders, Kevin Bowring, Pierre Villepreux and Clive Griffiths, Bowring was the only one who turned up for the interview. As it happens Bowring is an excellent choice even if his appointment was by default. A master at Clifton College, Bowring is no fool. So one must conclude that either he is very brave or very thick-skinned. By all known forensic tests the contents of the chalice he has picked up are laced with poison and if the arsenic doesn't get him, the daggers in his back almost certainly will.

The post as coach to the national side, once a position of prestige and world-wide influence, has fallen grievously into disrepute and as a result of the follies before, during and after the World Cup it was a surprise to find anyone wanting the job. The reign of Alex Evans which ended so ingloriously in public recrimination was calamitous. The sole Welsh success was against Japan, a side manifestly unfit to play at this level of competition. The selection policy in South Africa was more like a game of Russian roulette, as far from reality as so many of the pre-tournament boasts and post-tournament excuses. The damage done to the remnants of Welsh credibility and to morale is incalculable, but on the bright side it is hard to believe that they have any further to fall. When Evans took over, Wales were on the edge of an abyss; since then they have taken a giant step forward. It will be Bowring's task to winch his players up from the pit into which they have fallen. The question remains whether he has the players who can take Wales out of the wilderness.

With the introduction of the preposterously ill-conceived bonus points scheme for the number of tries scored, the kind of game at present being played at club level in Wales is so far removed from proper rugby that the shock of coming to terms with the real thing could prove fatal. A rule which so devalues the fundamental principle of rewarding victory is a complete nonsense and was shown to be last week when Newport, who had played themselves to a standstill in beating Cardiff, were displaced in the table by Swansea who had scarcely broken sweat in their annihilation of Abertillery.

The amateurishness of what is happening in Wales has been brought even more sharply into focus by the developments Down Under where the Australian Rugby Union last week appointed a chief executive with a proven track record in business to head up a small highly skilled professional team to run the game. The representatives of the affiliated states who form the rugby council and who are amateurs will meet once a year to endorse the decisions of the paid management committee.

The game in Wales, as it is throughout the UK and Ireland, is being run by amateurs, albeit in some cases extremely ambitious and gifted ones. Vernon Pugh, a president of the Welsh Rugby Union, has achieved a great deal during his term of office. He was a persuasive force in bringing the next World Cup to Wales and he has been one of the central figures in establishing the European Cup and in initiating the Anglo-Welsh tournament. Much has been done in a remarkably short time but too much has been done on the hoof. Opportunities to secure better deals have been lost, most of them by the Rugby Football Union who have watched helpless as Rome has gone up in flames.

There is very little to like in rugby union at the moment, but Bowring is a good and honourable man. We can only wish him the best of luck and hope he survives in what so many of his predecessors have found to be an alien and hostile world.