Rugby Union: Re-enter the Dragon; interview - Kevin Bowring

The lost leader of Wales steps back on to rugby union's big stage today.
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When Kevin Bowring was coach of the Welsh rugby team, he was accused of not paying enough attention to Richmond and, in particular, the club's posse of Welsh internationals. Today Bowring will be happy to address that issue as he takes Newbury to the Madejski stadium for an encounter with Richmond in the fourth round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup.

Bitter? Just a bit. Last May, two days before his 44th birthday, Bowring had his blueprint rejected by the Welsh Rugby Union and they parted company. The terms were not amicable. He was replaced by the New Zealander Graham Henry, who was appointed on a salary of pounds 250,000. "The new coach gets paid five times the amount," Bowring said, "and asks for the same things I asked for and gets them."

Imagine Clive Woodward losing the England job and moving to Henley; Bowring lost the Wales job and moved to Newbury. He succeeded Alex Evans in the national post in 1995 on a four-year contract, which should have seen him to this year's World Cup in front of his own people. Instead it's the Tetley's Cup with a club in Jewson National League One, but today's match represents a move from local repertory, via the international arena, back to centre stage. It has been an extraordinary journey.

When Bowring, a Neath boy who made his name as an outstanding flanker with London Welsh, left the WRU he was not inundated with offers. Last autumn, while visiting his sister-in-law at Highclere, he picked up a copy of the Newbury Weekly News and read that Keith Richardson, the England Under-21 and former Gloucester coach, was leaving Newbury RFC.

"I didn't realise they had someone of that stature," Bowring said. Bowring rang Richardson, Richardson rang David Smith, the Newbury president, and Smith rang Bowring. "I was going to help out until January," Bowring said. "But now I am going to carry on at least until the end of the season. I'm not looking elsewhere. It's just great to be back in a tracksuit."

It is a part-time job. Bowring also lectures at Cardiff University and writes articles for the Western Mail. "It's a good variety. If it all adds up to paying the mortgage, fine. If not, I'll go back to teaching. Even schools now have directors of rugby."

Bowring became Wales' first full-time coach after giving up his post as director of physical education and head of games at Clifton College. He coached Wales Under-20, Under-21, and Wales A from 1989 before picking up the chalice marked with a skull and crossbones. "I felt I had the courage to stand up and be counted. Many people didn't want the job."

Bowring's record was: played 29, won 15, lost 14. Things came to a head when Wales suffered record defeats to England and France in the Five Nations' Championship last season. "It was our best championship since 1994 and I didn't think we were as bad as those two heavy defeats suggested. I wanted to introduce changes. We needed a far more competitive structure and things had to be in place so we could make an impact in the World Cup. I told them it was the most important time in the history of Welsh rugby. The breakaway of Cardiff and Swansea has benefited those players enormously. The higher standard has allowed them to develop and it just wasn't there in the Welsh League."

Bowring drew up a development plan and the WRU were not interested. " 'What are you doing this for?' they asked me. 'You should be on the field.' They said they couldn't do it now but they might have a look at it for the World Cup in 2003. They expected me to carry the can. I couldn't compromise any more. People were making decisions who didn't know anything about the world game. I am surprised that Terry Cobner didn't support it."

Bowring has not heard a word from Cobner, the WRU's director of rugby. "I feel a bit of an outcast, as if I've lost some of my Welshness," Bowring added. "Yet I'm even more passionate about Wales because I've worked with so many of the players. As a result of the experience I have a lot more to offer. I think I could do a terrific job on player development but they've not even thought of using me. I am not vindictive. I'd like to thank the WRU for giving me the opportunity. If I wasn't good enough I wasn't good enough. My only regret is not seeing my contract through to the World Cup. Looking back, I enjoyed the experience. I don't think I'd have changed anything." Which brings us back to Richmond.

When Henry took over he was in contact with John Kingston, the Richmond coach, and the result is that the Quinnell brothers, Scott and Craig, helped transform the Welsh pack against the Springboks. "One critic said that my epitaph must be that I failed to use the Quinnells," Bowring said. "I have more knowledge of them than anybody. I gave both of them their first chance in international rugby. It's good to see that they are fitter and have lost weight. I have respect for John Kingston if he's getting Craig to knuckle down. The key is getting the best out of them. When they were picked it was hard to get them training. When they were left out there was a lot of moaning."

It would be safe to assume that Bowring would gain a degree of satisfaction - delirious is the word - if Newbury managed to put one over Richmond. The rural West Berkshire town, where attendances have been hit by Richmond's move to nearby Reading, doesn't appear to be a hotbed of rugby, but looks can be deceiving. From the under-sevens to the women's section they run 18 teams. They're ambitious, they've got some clout (they frightened the life out of Leicester two years ago), they've got an impressive new complex, they are sponsored by Vodafone, the town's main employers, and they've got Bowring.

Two years ago the club sold their ground to a retail park developer for pounds 5m - their old pitch is now a Tesco's - and blew the lot on custom-made facilities at Monks Lane, a couple of miles from Greenham Common. Like Bowring, the players are part-time. The Blues, as Newbury are known, have a squadron leader at scrum-half, a Christie's fine arts expert at full- back, a Croatian international at lock, and the former London Irish hooker Rob Kellam as captain.

Unlike those in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, they train only twice a week. However, there's a fleet of sponsored white Fiat Puntos in the car park and they are paid modest performance-related bonuses. "The trouble with professional rugby," Bowring said, "is that there is no release point. Players become brain dead. For the coaches it can be fun until things go wrong and then the strain becomes huge. It's a bit like soccer. We need a more sensible approach. Newbury have a good balance, and their goals are realistic. It can be a bit frustrating and I've had to adapt but there are still points to be won, still a cutting edge. There's a platform here."

The Blues, whose threequarter line has been decimated by injuries this season (they've had nine different full-backs) are unlikely to be promoted, although last week they scored eight tries at Harrogate, all of them from the wings and full-back. "They are beginning to play the all-round game I've always wanted to play," Bowring said.

Richmond, of course, are no Harrogate and this cup does not offer giant-killing on the scale of the FA Cup. "Our players have a chance of measuring themselves against internationals," Bowring said. "If they can look them in the eye, score a few tries and show pride in defence then who knows?"