Profile: Benign dictator of Bath: Jack Rowell: Chris Rea studies the methods and achievements of a coach called to serve his country
Sunday 01 May 1994
Their unparalleled achievement, built on respect and loyalty, has owed very little to luck. The decisions that have driven Rowell to the top in his professional life and have brought matchless honours to Bath could never have been constructed on anything as fickle as chance. Somehow, he has conjured the trick of organising his rugby duties around a business career that would tax most to the hilt. As chief executive of Dalgety Food Products, his work base in Market Harborough is far removed from his playground in Bath. A house in Leicestershire, purchased as the family home, is hardly ever occupied and an annual mileage of over 50,000 inevitably means that sacrifices have to be made. He has little time for golf, his favourite form of relaxation, and for as long as he remains in his new job as manager of England he concedes that his handicap is unlikely to come down. But then there was never any likelihood of him refusing the job that many believe is the fulfilment of his destiny.
Even in his playing days, which were blighted by injury, he showed great leadership qualities. Thwarted in his ambitions on the field, he channelled his energies and his considerable intellect into guiding first Gosforth and then Bath to the summit. His combined record with the clubs - eight cup victories between 1976 and 1992 and five League titles in seven years - can surely never be surpassed.
When Tony Russ, whose Leicester side defend the Pilkington Cup against the champions at Twickenham next Saturday, was asked what he envied most about Bath, he replied that it was their ability to remain in the vanguard of change. This is, of course, Rowell's stock-in-trade whether in the ice-cold surroundings of the boardroom or the frenzied passion of the scrum. When the controversial ruck and maul laws were first introduced in 1992, there was almost universal condemnation from the world's coaches. But not at Bath. Rowell called a meeting of his coaches and senior players. He told them that, like it or loathe it, they would have to live with the new laws. They devised a strategy to cope with the changes and while others were running into brick walls and squealing at the pain and frustration of it, Bath were releasing the ball far quicker and running it, their style liberated from the game's constrictions.
In matters of fitness, dietary control and the improvement of individual skills, the club have also been at the forefront. When Rowell went to Bath in 1976 the club was well stocked with gifted backs but the forwards were a motley crew lacking motivation, organisation and a spine. It was the spine Rowell needed most if he was to make anything of a club which had very little but possessed unlimited potential for growth and prosperity. It was, on reflection, a businessman's dream.
Rowell's first training session at the Rec coincided with the arrival of a raw and socially insecure recruit, Gareth Chilcott. 'Jack arrived in a swish car,' Chilcott recalls, 'I came on foot.' It was to be the start of a close and enduring association. It was also the making of Chilcott.
Rowell recognised early on that in this complex, volatile young man he had an unpolished gem who would help him form a pack on which to build his team. However, their relationship in those early years was tempestuous and both came close to despair. Once Bath were touring United States and had just played an ill-tempered and often brutal game against Boston. Chilcott had been singled out as the chief troublemaker, as he frequently was at the time. The whistle went for the end of the game and as the players headed for the club-house, Rowell came striding purposefully towards Chilcott. 'This is it,' thought Chilcott, 'I'm not going to take any more flak from this bastard.' But instead of letting rip with a tirade of criticism, Rowell motioned to the ground. 'Come on Gareth, let's sit down and have a chat,' he said. And there the two remained, cross-legged in the middle of the pitch for an hour and a half in earnest conversation.
'Jack told me many home truths that afternoon,' Chilcott says. 'He said I was letting down my family, my friends and my club but above all that I was letting myself down. He told me that I might play for England one day but not unless I changed my attitude. And finally he told me not to make any rash decision but to go off and think very hard about what I wanted.' Chilcott's immediate reaction was to leave the club and to give up rugby. 'I just didn't need it.' But the more Chilcott thought about it the more he realised that he could not do without the satisfaction he derived from the game in general and from Bath in particular.
It is Rowell's motivational skills and his understanding of human nature that set him apart. He can be an intimidating bully to some, a compassionate counsellor to others. Above all Rowell insists that those representing Bath are men of the right calibre.
When Andy Robinson first joined the club as a young flanker, Rowell told Roger Spurrell that his first-team place was in jeopardy. Not only did this bring the best out in Spurrell but it provoked ferocious rivalry in practice. Chilcott recalls that some of the most physically demanding games he has ever played have been on Bath's training ground.
Big names, big reputations but no big heads. Rowell is especially proud of that. He remembers the occasion after Paul Simpson had won his first cap and was the centre of attention. Suddenly he broke off from an interview, saying: 'Sorry, I'm going to have to go. If I'm late for training Jack will drop me.' Rowell has never flinched from taking difficult and controversial decisions. He dropped Nigel Redman for a cup final and, two seasons ago, left him out of the side again. This season there has probably not been a more valuable player to club or country.
Rowell is no tyrant, however. Even enlightened despots tend not to seek the views of others, but Rowell is constantly searching for information and drawing on the knowledge of experts. On one occasion, before a particularly big game, he was uncertain how he should approach the team talk and he asked Richard Hill what he thought the Bath club was all about. 'Winning,' came the immediate reply. It was exactly what Rowell wanted to hear. The difference between Bath and the other clubs was the difference between expectation and hope. He had the material for his team talk.
For all his apparent self-assurance, Rowell is a restless spirit on match days and those sitting next to him suffer deep bruising from elbows that are as active as his mind. During the 1984 cup final against Bristol, the occasion proved too much. Bath had started well on their first appearance in the final and had built a good lead. But gradually Bristol pulled them back until, with 10 minutes left, they were just one point behind. In the final couple of minutes Stuart Barnes, then in Bristol's colours, had a penalty to win the match. The ball sailed towards the posts and the crowd's roar was deafening. Minutes earlier, unable to take the strain and certain that Bath's dream was about to be shattered, Rowell had left his seat and was pacing distractedly behind the west stand. He interpreted the roar as heralding a Bristol victory and, distraught, he made his way to the changing-room to console his players. But Barnes had missed and it was Bath, not Bristol, who had won the cup, the beginning of a decade of dominance.
Having helped create so many international players during his time at Bath, it is only fitting that Rowell has become the England manager. It will, many think, be the stiffest challenge of his career. The perils that have befallen successful club managers at the higher levels of international competition in all sports are too numerous to recount. But Rowell is not impulsive, and would have given such considerations careful thought. Rowell is a winner. He has lived both his professional and sporting lives under the pressure of accountability and he has always kept one step ahead.
He leaves Bath with a rich legacy, a squad as strong as any in the club's history and coaches in Brian Ashton and Gareth Chilcott who, in their very different ways, will ensure that the legacy is properly maintained. If it is the mark of a man's success that events are continuously affected by what he has done then Rowell has certainly achieved that at Bath. There is not a single soul there who wishes him anything but the best.
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