Dwyer digs for the grass roots

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Leicester's ex-Wallaby coach has a clear idea of where English rugby should be heading. Chris Hewett met him
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The Independent Online
Bob Dwyer is off and running at his loquacious best. "So I say to the groundsman: `Hey, we're going to need some juice on that training paddock. It's like bloody concrete out there.' He shakes his head and tells me it takes eight hours to water a quarter of the pitch. "`Fine,' I say. `Let's have the sprinkler on for 32 hours.' I suppose they all think I'm crazy but, Jeez, what does it take to get things done in this country?"

Eight months into his English sojourn, Dwyer still finds the "no can do" culture hard to swallow. "My wife went to buy a car last November. Pretty straightforward, eh? Not on your life. She chose the model, identified the extras she wanted and was just about to pay up when they told her they couldn't deliver until March. She almost fell over with the shock. It wasn't until she threatened to take her money elsewhere that they said: `Hang on, we might be able to do something for you next week.' What a joke."

Dwyer is not much interested in negativity, least of all when it comes to rugby. As the only coach ever to win a World Cup on foreign soil - Australia at Twickenham, 1991 - the electrical engineer from Sydney sewed the last stripe on his sleeve more than half a decade ago, yet he remains sufficiently passionate about the game to work a seven-day week as Leicester's head cook and bottlewasher. "It can't go on like this, though," he grumbles as he walks into a distinctly spartan temporary office that appears to double as a telephone exchange. "After all, I'm meant to be enjoying myself." The truth, of course, is that he wouldn't want it any other way.

His extraordinary energy, the common currency of all high achievers, remains intact, which is more than can be said for anyone else at Welford Road. The Tigers' enterprising challenge for a first cup and league double has crumbled in the face of the oldest double whammy in the rugby handbook - injury and exhaustion - but when you speak to Dwyer, you realise it would take a plague of Biblical proportions to keep him away from the coalface.

This has been one tough campaign, however. Put to one side for a moment the World Cups, the Wallaby tours, the Bledisloe Cup confrontations with New Zealand, umpteen Sydney Grand Finals with Randwick, the mental gymnastics required to win and retain the respect of Ella and Farr-Jones and Lynagh, the endless battle to harness the genius of David Campese ("I don't think I quite managed it, looking back"). If you want rugby at its most punishing, says Dwyer with an unnerving degree of relish, look no further than the here and now.

"I've never experienced such prolonged intensity before and I'm genuinely taken aback at the commitment I see out there on the pitch week after week, sometimes twice or three times a week. My impression of English rugby from the outside was that the players weren't fit enough, aggressive enough or enthusiastic enough, but that's obviously on the change.

"Certainly, the England Test side is playing differently now. You used to see 20 or 30 high balls from them every time they took the field; whenever they got possession it was ke-boom, ke-boom, ke-boom, an incredible preoccupation with hanging the high stuff on the opposition in the hope of getting a penalty or a quick turnover. Jack Rowell has switched that around a little this season and I don't blame him, either. I wouldn't want to be part of a game in which you simply sent up bombs and waited to see whether or not the other side could catch."

Dwyer has always been able to talk a good 80 minutes, but you have to give him credit for putting his tactics in close proximity to his vocal cords. "In my first year as Randwick coach - it must be all of 20 years ago now - we lost the Sydney Grand Final to Paramatta, who used to kick the ball one hell of a lot. The next year, we had a great running side - Mark Ella was leaving everyone for dead - but when we played Paramatta, I told Mark to kick everything behind their wings. `What, every time?' he asked. `Just do it,' I said. We hammered them and sure enough, everyone came running up to me, saying: `What's going on? Why play like that?' The reason was simple: I just wanted to show people how easy it was to play a kicking game, that Blind Freddie could do it in his sleep if he so wished. It never happened again. The rest of the time we ran sides off their feet and averaged six tries a match.

"I'm interested in putting together sides capable of performing the whole range of techniques and skills, teams that can chew gum and walk simultaneously. The one thing rugby union has over every other game you care to mention is its multi-dimensional aspect - by comparison, rugby league is terribly one-dimensional - and if the only way you can win is by banging the ball in the air, you've achieved nothing. In my book, it's not just what you do, but how you do it."

Most of which is fairly un-Australian, given that country's determinedly anti-Olympian view of all things sporting. The average Antipodean subscribes lock, stock and sheepdip to the maxim that it is not the taking part that counts, but the winning, yet Dwyer's motivation is significantly broader, an evangelical approach bordering on the altruistic.

Indeed, he is currently engaged on a project that would, in his carefully considered view, transform English rugby in the space of a season. At a meeting of the senior clubs early last month, Dwyer called for the introduction of national leagues for second XVs, development teams and youth teams - a competitive structure running right down through the grades, aimed at nurturing talent at a vastly accelerated pace.

"It's the biggest single thing we could do for the well-being of the game in this country. People in England are forever wondering why players have to wait until middle age before getting a run in the national side and from where I'm sitting, the absence of a proper competitive structure outside the shop window is 100 per cent of the reason.

"We've used five 18-year-olds in the Leicester first team this season - Leon Lloyd, Roly Edwards, Tom Butler, Dave Addison and Lewis Moody, who was our man of the match against the Barbarians - and that is exactly my point. If you don't put guys in pressure situations, you'll never know what they can do. So many people here say: `Hang on, he's not ready. He needs a bit more work on his angles.' Angles, for Chrissakes. Have you ever heard such rubbish?

"Look at this season's Super 12. I'll bet there are at least two teenagers playing for each New Zealand province, simply because they've made a conscious policy decision to fast-track the best of their youngsters. It was the same back home in Australia, where Tim Horan, Jason Little and John Eales all played state rugby in their first seasons as seniors. Hell, I saw Jason even before he played top-grade club rugby. He may have been a colt, but that didn't stop him being the best outside centre in Australia. Pick him? Of course we picked him.

"The feedback from the meeting last month was very positive and I have no doubt that we'd get a working number of entrants for each new league. If we used the Australian model, the first and second teams would play one after another - the crowd gets more rugby for their money, the coaches get a chance to see more players - and I can guarantee England would see the system bear fruit within the first year."

Talking of first years, Leicester could scarcely have hoped for a more immediate impact from their new coach. Beaten in the final of the Heineken Cup, the Tigers may yet end up with a big fat zero. All the same, Dwyer's willingness to sacrifice an entire herd of sacred cattle - Dean Richards, Rory Underwood, John Liley and John Wells have all been dropped at one stage or another - coupled with a determination to shake the club out of the rigor mortis of 10-man rugby, has made life unusually compelling for the Welford Road faithful.

"I'm still a fair way short of where I want to be with this side, but a few foundation stones have been put in place and now that we're organised a little better, I might be able to spend at least part of next season concentrating on some specifics. To be quite honest with you, I've had no time at all to look at opposition teams. I wouldn't know most of the players we face each week if I tripped over them in the street and when people ask me what I think of so-and-so, I haven't got the foggiest idea who they're talking about. I'll be better informed next time around."

But is it enough, this weekly grind through the Courage League mincing machine? After two bites of the Wallaby apple, does Dwyer truly come alive on anything other than the international stage? "I haven't missed the Test arena as much as I thought I might, but I wouldn't rule out another shot if someone loaded the gun for me. I love the challenge, wherever it might arise, so it wouldn't necessarily have to be Australia, either."

Mmm, now that is interesting. Thanks to the telecommunications overload in his office, Dwyer answers a zillion phone calls a day at present. Who is to say he will not lift the receiver one day and find Twickenham on the other end?