Bowring burdened with great expectation

FIVE NATIONS COUNTDOWN: The selfless man of Welsh rugby, who will give his all as national coach, talks to Steve Bale
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Kevin Bowring's choice of rugby paragon says everything about him, because if ever there was an unsung hero of the great Wales teams of a quarter of a century ago when young Kev was in his teens it was David Morris, the ultimate players' player. A bit like Bowring.

That both played at No 8 for Neath is an obviously direct link. But more important for Bowring as he sups from the poisoned chalice as Wales' first full-time national coach is that Morris unfailingly sacrificed himself for the team. So much so that despite being an absolutely critical member of the superb Welsh Grand Slam side of 1971 he was the only one who did not make that year's Lions tour of fabled memory to New Zealand.

That, you might say, was the ultimate sacrifice, though Morris never complained. He was taciturn, a quiet collier certainly not given to speeches, whereas in his former incarnation as a teacher at one of England's grandest public schools Bowring developed articulacy and pedagogic skills which he is now bringing to the salvation of Welsh rugby.

And that is precisely the problem, because the burden of expectation on the coach - any coach - after the long years of failure that succeeded the long years of success is frankly more than one salvationist should have to bear. Or at least it was when the position was an honorary one, as it was for all 10 of his predecessors since David Nash started the dynasty in 1968.

Not that the thinking-man's coach likes to call it a poisoned chalice. It is too negative, too backward-looking. Anyway Bowring wouldn't dare, not at a time when another new coach means another new team and with it another outbreak of ritual optimism. Bowring is intent on looking ahead, and by that he means further than tomorrow's game against England at Twickenham.

"We have a great tradition and high expectations but we need to develop our game, because while rugby has been developing world-wide ours has stagnated and become too insular in its approach," he said. "We are catching up quickly but there is a lot of work to do and I'm not underestimating the pressures either on me or on the players."

This is now such received wisdom that in rubbishing some of the things that have happened - and others that have not but should have - in Welsh rugby Bowring is not even being controversial. Indeed recent years have been characterised by an endless collective self-flagellation, an agonising baring of the soul which may have bred a healthy realism but has also sunk the Welsh into unhealthy gloom.

A succession of coaches has come and gone - Bowring is the sixth since 1988 - with many fine words but without discernible improvement. The new man is contracted until the end of the 1999 World Cup, so, far from being still more precarious as an employee of the Welsh Rugby Union, he actually has more security than any of the honorary Wales coaches ever had.

"I came in with my eyes open and I know there will be ups and a lot of downs," Bowring said, making it sound as if he has been talking to some of his unhappier predecessors. One can, for instance, well imagine Alan Davies and possibly Alex Evans counselling against bargepole-contact, though neither had the professional support-base that is at Bowring's disposal.

"It's a personal challenge, part of my personal development, to see how I can cope with it," he added. "I'm learning all the time and I know I'm not the finished article. It's a growing experience but what happens after this and how long it lasts will be measured in terms of results. Perhaps we have put the coach on a pedestal to rectify all evils, relied just on the personality and not looked at the structure that supports him. That will not work."

Had it not changed - with Bowring the top-down man soon to be accompanied by Terry Cobner, the bottom-up man, as the WRU's director of rugby - it is unlikely he would have taken the chance. At 41, he had ascended the representative coaching ladder with Wales Under-20, Under-21 and A, but for 10 years had had a job he cherished as director of physical education and head of games at Clifton College, Bristol.

He took the risk. When Evans was in hospital in November Bowring acted as caretaker-coach for the Wales-Fiji game and, with Evans back home in Australia, made his professional debut against Italy a fortnight ago. Two games, two victories - and however agonised they may have been, that is two more than Wales achieved last season.

"As far as I was concerned, it was a natural progression after 20 years of professional development, as a rugby player, a PE/sports-science graduate, PE teacher, and as someone involved in coaching," he said. "My view on life is that you step up until you step out and while it was perhaps a difficult decision to leave Clifton I couldn't live with myself if I hadn't."

In actual fact he has not quite left Clifton. Mrs Wendy Bowring is head of the pre-prep school there and both Bowring children are Clifton pupils. Kevin still gives a double lesson once a week in A-level sports studies as a usefully anonymous antidote to the overbearing attention that has been turned on him in the build-up towards the England game.

It was seldom like this during his playing career, spent exclusively with London Welsh - an unsung hero in the Morris mould to those beyond the confines of Old Deer Park - once he had gone through the noted rugby academy at Borough Road College (later called West London Institute) and had half a dozen holiday-time games for Neath. One, unforgettably for Bowring, was in the back row alongside Dai Morris, then in his rugby dotage.

If nothing else, this gave him a feeling of excitement and excitability vaguely akin to that which his young players will experience when they run out at Twickenham tomorrow. Bowring is consciously building his own team - in his own image, as it were - unencumbered by the baggage of Welsh rugby history yet inspired by its reputation, however faded, for instinctive brilliance.

"Playing rugby handball rather than rugby football," teacher says. Yes, sir.