Rugby Union: Fresh canvas for Turner

After a high-profile exit, one of the sharpest brains in British rugby is back in business
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The Independent Online
PAUL TURNER is a crowd pleaser, the people's player, but that doesn't necessarily endear him to everybody. "The trouble is," he said, "I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve." And that makes an inviting target.

In his latest reincarnation, the artful dodger is wearing his new working clothes, a Saracens tracksuit, fresh out of the wrapper. In one side-step, he is out of the frying pan and nestling beside a comfortable hearth. Turner has arrived - once more.

Less than two weeks ago he parted company with Bedford and went to Jersey, to spend some time at the rugby club there and have a few drinks. "I had to get away for a few days," he said. Nevertheless, Turner's phone does not stay silent for long. Mark Evans, the Saracens director of rugby who has known Turner for almost 20 years, tracked him down and offered him the job of coaching the Saracens backs.

The appointment was announced within hours and seven days ago Turner appeared at the Stoop, where Saracens played London Scottish, sporting a Sarries tie and standing alongside the player-coach Francois Pienaar. In the clubhouse Turner couldn't avoid the temptation of watching the Bedford-Leicester match on TV. "I have a lot of friends at Bedford. I had a good time there."

Under the stewardship of Turner as player-coach and with Frank Warren in their corner, Bedford's fortunes were transformed and last season's promotion run to the Premiership was unstoppable. Then they had what is euphemistically called a cash-flow problem, Warren explaining that, during a legal argument with the American boxing promoter Don King, his assets had been frozen. The big chill has been felt throughout the club.

Mike Rayer, who had a terrific couple of seasons at Bedford, sued for alleged breach of contract, rejoined Cardiff and has been recalled to the Welsh squad. A confidentiality agreement prevents the players, who have discussed strike action, from talking publicly but it didn't stop Warren from saying: "Boxing is a doddle compared to rugby. You get shot in the foot everywhere you turn. I have been shot before and I don't fancy it but I'm not going to walk away."

The official line from the club is that Turner's departure was by "mutual consent". Turner is careful. "Frank Warren has given a famous old club the opportunity to re-establish itself," he said.

Last month, when Turner took Bedford to Sale, he was given a hero's welcome by the Manchester crowd. They liked him, others didn't. Six years ago, Turner got a call from David Young, the Wales prop who was then at Salford. Young was acting on behalf of Cotton Traders, a company run by Fran Cotton and Steve Smith. Would he be interested in moving to Sale?

With Turner as player-coach Sale began to play such effective rugby, they not only gained promotion but put 50 points on Evans' Saracens. "It was one of the worst days of my life," Evans recalls.

With little or no investment, Sale had to compete in the top flight with the players who took them there. Two years ago a bargain basement Sale were trailing 28-6 at Bath and drew 38-38. It was Turner's last game for the club, although he didn't know it. While he was on holiday, Sale got rid of him.

"Everybody else was going professional and certain things needed to happen at the club which didn't happen. When I questioned people about it I found myself at loggerheads with the committee. I needed an ally but I couldn't find one. I was isolated and pushed out. I'm still waiting for the captain [Jim Mallinder] to phone me." Turner also felt let down by the lack of support from Cotton and Smith. He was replaced by the New Zealander John Mitchell, whom Turner was responsible for recruiting.

"It took Mitchell six weeks to identify the problems and now all those people have gone," Turner said. "I tend to see things in black and white and if a job is being done poorly I say so. That has been the story of my career."

Born in Newport, the son of a steelworker, his first club was Newbridge, 20 years ago. Throughout the Eighties he had spells with Newbridge, Newport and London Welsh. Turner was the archetypal Welsh fly-half in the days when the production line was fully operational.

He was an orchestrator as well as a soloist and one of his specialities was the unorthodox. It's what made him the people's player. He has scored tries blessed with the vision of genius, yet he won only three caps, the third in a 12-9 victory over England at Cardiff. He is the only back ever to be capped from Newbridge.

"I came from an unfashionable club and I was regarded as a stop-gap. Although people like Barry John and Phil Bennett thought I was the logical choice, the selectors went for Colin Stephens and they threw him in too early. That was the end of me."

Wales wasted Turner's maverick qualities but they were put to good use in English club rugby. Sale went up, Bedford went up. A common denominator in the end was lack of resources to strengthen squads that would prosper in the Premiership. He will not have that problem now. Apart from replacing his Bedford BMW with a Saracens Ford Mondeo, he has gone upmarket in every respect.

"There's a lot of talent here and everybody's told me I've made a good move. I've watched them quite often at Watford and I like their style." Saracens train at their old ground at Southgate, a venue Turner knows well from his playing days, which, at the age of 39, ended last month. Last week he met Alain Penaud, the French stand-off recruited by Saracens to replace Michael Lynagh, for the first time.

"One intriguing aspect of my job is to try to instil a bit of Welshness into a French fly-half. He is starting to come to terms with the way the British play rugby. He has tremendous qualities and is a joy to watch. He has an acute awareness of space although he plays very flat. Watching him you understand why teams who visit the South of France come home well beaten. My job is to make sure he gels with his inside backs and to get people playing off him. Alain Penaud is Alain Penaud and he has his own style but I like to think I can add a few things to his game."

Yesterday Saracens, beaten only by Cardiff this season, were at Swansea and on Sunday they meet Leicester at vicarage Road in a match which, even at this early stage of the season, could have a significant bearing on the outcome of the Premiership.

"I want to emphasise," Mark Evans said, "that Saracens now have the strongest coaching team in the country."

"Maybe," Turner, slightly embarrassed, said.